Portrait of Newhouse professor Jodi Upton

Professor Jodi Upton recalls how her father's death overseas made her skeptical of government, attracted to journalism

By Jason Chen

December 15, 2016

Upton will teach her first classes as the Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism in spring 2017

Jodi Upton remembers walking home from school and seeing all the cars in her driveway. She was in third grade and didn’t understand what was happening. 

The cars belonged to representatives from the engineering firm where her father worked, sent by the United States Embassy to notify the 8-year-old’s family that her father had died when the terminal building collapsed at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, Iran. In the ensuing weeks it took to recover his body, a representative from the embassy tried to confiscate the coffin intended to send him home, and an embassy worker wrote on his death certificate that Upton’s father had died of “natural causes,” and not in the accident, she says.

That’s when Upton, the new Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism at the Newhouse School, realized things were not always as they appeared.

Her father’s co-workers were able to undo the embassy’s actions. But one co-worker, a British citizen, received a written rebuke from then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, accusing him of creating an “international incident” for his interference.

“I suddenly understood that the U.S. government and democracy aren’t necessarily always on the side of the average citizen,” Upton says.

That realization spurred a lifelong interest in social justice issues.

Upton earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Michigan State University and pursued a master’s degree in journalism at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, but took a newspaper job before completing that degree. She landed a job on the business team at a local newspaper in her hometown of Lansing, Michigan. She covered General Motors and city hall and learned a lot on both beats. She found that she really enjoyed the work.

Upton eventually worked at newspapers in Flint and then Detroit where she dabbled in investigative data projects. She says those places were great “news towns” to start her journalism career because the training she received helped her better understand journalism.

“They are not necessary the places a lot of people go to spend their time,” Upton says. “But things are always happening there.”

She later took a job at USA Today in Washington, D.C. where she focused on sports data journalism. One of her first projects was to analyze contracts for about 120 college football coaches. The project took a closer look at the coaches’ salaries and since about 100 worked at public schools, their salaries were public.

Upton says sports, especially college sports, is a billion-dollar industry whose finances are not always well covered by the media.

“No one actually ever looked at that before,” Upton says of the salary story. “Nearly every single one of them made more than presidents of the universities.”

After spending eight years in sports data journalism at USA Today, Upton became senior database editor there. She supervised a team of six database editors, data journalists, researchers and contractors. She and her team worked on topics including Veterans Administration hospitals, new economy jobs and mass killings.

One prize-winning project Upton’s team worked on, was tracking the number of mass killings that occur in the U.S. every year. By checking incidents reported to the FBI, her team found the agency’s accuracy rate was about 57 percent for crimes where four or more people were killed. And that didn’t include dozens of cases not included in the FBI’s data.

“We live in this world where there is more and more data available,” she says. “The problem is we are discovering that much of it is not very good, especially when it comes to the government.”

Upton and her team won numerous awards, including Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Phillip Meyer Awards; Associated Press Sports Editors Awards; a World Media Summit Innovation Award; Best of USA Today Awards; and the Iris Molotsky Award for Excellence in Coverage of Higher Education, among others.

In 2002-03 she was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and in August, Upton joined the Newhouse School as the Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism. She is also a professor in the Newspaper and Online Journalism department and will teach her first classes in spring 2017.

Traditionally, data journalism is used more frequently in print media, but a lot of broadcasting stations also use data journalism, she says. At USA Today, Upton says she and her team worked with not only Gannett’s 80-plus newspapers but about 40 television stations as well.

“Data journalism is a way to get beyond an interview where 'he says one thing and she says another thing,’ ” Upton says. “One of the things that worries me is (that) I saw a lot of really pretty data visualizations, but it’s also clear that the reporter didn’t necessarily understand the data very well.”

The Newhouse School has a strong interest in teaching data journalism, she says. She wants to increase students’ ability to do investigative and data journalism.

“I want to work with the next generation of journalists—many of whom (will find that) working with data is going to be second nature,” she says.

Data journalism is increasingly important today because journalists need to know how to scrutinize numbers to make sure they are accurate and truthful.

“As a journalist, if you are not at least aware of how poorly (data) can be interpreted, you are giving people wrong information.” Upton says. “We are not supposed to be doing that. Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we don’t take shortcuts and we don’t get manipulated by what other people or agencies want. ”

She says data journalists have many opportunities to move up in journalism because large newspapers and wire services are in need of those talents. As newspapers get smaller, however, fewer newsrooms are investing in data journalism, she says. It’s a shame since data journalism is how reporters can fulfill their First Amendment obligation.

“That means you have fewer people monitoring what the government does,” she says. Advanced big data techniques may someday help level the playing field for journalists, allowing them to keep track of government bodies large and small. “If you can’t monitor what the city council is doing, data is one of the ways you could monitor it.”

Data journalism can help reporters not only understand public documents but analyze spreadsheets, look at database management systems and analyze numbers, Upton says. Data journalism stories create a sense of transparency with readers, giving them a tool to explore the data themselves, Upton says. “There are so many data stories to tell, and there is just not enough people who know data enough to do it.”

She’s looking forward to changing that at Newhouse.

“It’s our First Amendment obligation,” she says. “Our democracy does really depend on this.”

Jason Chen is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major.

Photos by Alec Erlebacher, a master's photography student at the Newhouse School.