News

‘Right into a major newsroom’: Jackie Botts’s journey from a Stanford classroom to a Pulitzer Prize

Aug. 15, 2021, 5:35 p.m.

Jackie Botts ’16 M.A. ’18 sat in front of her computer, typing the last few lines of an arcane coding language into a data analysis program. For the first time during Botts’s internship at Reuters, she and her team had collected enough data to calculate a linear regression, or trend, between two or more variables. As the code reached completion, the data was ready to be crunched, Botts pressed enter.

In front of her eyes, months of reporting on the effects of qualified immunity translated into tangible results. Botts and her team were thrilled when they found an unmistakable trend in the data: The Supreme Court had been accepting the police’s appeals for immunity at a rate three times greater than for all appeals.

But what they didn’t know is that those results would lead them to win the Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.

“That moment was like, ‘Wow, this hypothesis is bearing out,’” she recalled. “It was gratifying, and made very clear which direction we were going to be going in.”

Botts and her team at Reuters had been combing through legal cases and tracking down sources in a years-long effort to better understand qualified immunity. Finally, the reporters had an answer to their question: clear evidence that law enforcement was increasingly using — and courts were increasingly accepting — qualified immunity as a legal mechanism to avoid accountability for excessive force.

The story that grew from the data — in which Botts and her team explained the major trends through compelling narratives and visuals — was applauded by the Pulitzer Committee as an “exhaustive examination powered by a pioneering data analysis.”

Though Botts was recognized with one of the world’s most renowned reporting awards, her eyes weren’t always set on journalism. An earth systems major at Stanford, she developed a passion for reporting only during her senior year.

“I’ve never really been able to stay focused on one thing for a long period of time, so I think it suits me a little bit to keep on learning about new things,” Botts said. “It’s almost as if every time I start covering a new topic, it feels like doing a major or doing a college course in that topic.”

On a whim, Botts began an internship at her hometown newspaper, The Santa Barbara Independent. It soon became clear to her that her passion for writing extended beyond environmental reporting. Covering a variety of local news soon became as interesting as writing about the animal shelter next door or reporting on raging wildfires nearby.

Enamored, Botts returned to Stanford for an M.A. in journalism. While she had planned to focus on multimedia reporting, she was also intrigued by the emerging data reporting field in journalism.

“How much of this is there? How common is it? How common is it for different segments of the data? Those types of question,” Botts said of data science engaging her in new ways. “I started doing some projects where I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really interesting — there are stories in this spreadsheet.’”

Driven by these questions, Botts enrolled in COMM 277I: “Becoming a Watchdog: Law, Order, & Algorithms,” taught by journalism lecturer Cheryl Phillips and postdoctoral scholar Sharad Goel. As a part of the course, students were matched with a news organization to collaborate on a long-term investigation.

“They put the student right into a major newsroom, working on high-level stories and understanding what goes into a data-driven journalistic story,” Phillips said, adding that these projects serve as a valuable launching platform for new journalists.

At Reuters, Botts was invited to work with a team investigating qualified immunity. Although she was a relatively inexperienced reporter when she joined the team, Reuters inserted Botts into an intense and demanding project that expanded her understanding of the courts, data journalism and the world at large. The internship layed essential groundwork for the next stages of Botts’s career: deeply committed to the project, Botts ended up staying with the team long after she graduated from Stanford.

Over the course of a full year, Botts read hundreds, if not thousands, of legal cases, distilling the complexity of legalese into quantifiable and measurable values. She also interviewed survivors of excessive force and relatives of those who died at the hands of the police.

“I learned so much so fast,” Botts said. “I learned a lot about data during that internship, and I now call myself a data reporter because of the lessons I learned and the skills that I learned there.”

The data, though, constituted only half the story. The other portion came from capturing the people behind the names and numbers, and telling the stories behind the outcomes of their cases. As Botts read through each case, she marked any that could help encapsulate and personify the minutiae of the data. When a case caught their eyes, the reporters would search for lawyers’ contact information and track down family members on social media.

Botts followed two of these cases: Benny Herrera, a father of four who was shot by police looking into an alleged assault; and Khari Illidge, a 25-year-old who died after being tased nearly 20 times, kneeled on and hogtied. Botts interviewed family members of both victims, asking them to recall the most traumatic period of their lives.

Reading and listening to their stories took a toll on Botts: “There were times when I had to take breaks. And there were times also when it showed up in my dreams,” she said. “I wanted to cry on the phone, but that was not my role. I wasn’t there to be friends. I was trying to stay strong and calm.”

The project relied on extensive work from the lead reporters, but also from visual, data and text editors, as well as social teams and colleagues that offered to lend a hand. Andrea Januta, an investigative data reporter for Reuters and a close friend of Botts, managed data during the last two years of the project.

Botts and Januta worked together to solve data conundrums and often bounced ideas off one another. When Botts left the Reuters team, the two “joked about having to download her brain onto mine,” Januta wrote.

Since the project ended, Januta and Botts have stayed in touch, visiting each other whenever they are on the same coast. Of course, when the two are together, they “spend a hefty amount of time discussing qualified immunity in excruciating detail,” Januta wrote.

Botts now covers economic inequality for CalMatters, a newsroom that dissects California politics and policy. While the scope of Botts’s focus is far narrower than it was during her time at Reuters, she said she remains committed to reporting on equity and justice.

“There’s so much more to be done in terms of investigative reporting that looks into how the body of law that has been developed ends up getting permuted and delivering, in some cases, the opposite of justice,” Botts said.

High School contributor for the Daily Summer WorkshopSydney Black is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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