Newhouse Student Develops Passion for Data Journalism Through Work on Police Vehicle Crash Investigative Series

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but the idea of an investigative data journalism project, as much of a word salad as it was, appealed to me. When I started my internship with the “Driving Force” investigative series at Newhouse, I had worked with data by the very nature of my majors in magazine, news and digital journalism (MND) and economics, but I had never dealt with the investigative side of journalism. I hadn’t had much actual journalism experience up to this point. After all, I started this internship after only my first year at Syracuse University. So this was a plunge into the deep end.

a person holds a laptop in a room with other people
Hayden Kim works on the “Driving Force” investigative series in the Advanced Data Class at Newhouse. (Photo by Marilyn Hesler)

The investigative series, led by Jodi Upton, Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism, and Nausheen Husain, assistant professor of magazine, news and digital journalism, looks at police vehicle accidents and the impact such crashes have had on communities across New York State. It is published on The NewsHouse, and includes stories about emergency driver training for officers in New York State, victims of police car crashes and more.

In my data tagging role, we started at the foundation of data journalism, the data set itself. From filing Freedom of Information Act requests for disciplinary and accident reports, to reading said reports and logging them into our spreadsheet with hundreds of entries, my fellow intern, Evan Butow, and I worked for weeks collecting data and logging it. This was a grueling process, but absolutely essential in finding the officers with the most accidents, discovering their habits and other trends across all these accidents.

a person looks at a computer
Jodi Upton works with her students in the Advanced Data class. (Photo by Marilyn Hesler)

At the end of this process, we presented our findings and conclusions to the wider team of journalists at USA Today and the Central Current. With the help of USA Today investigative reporter Beryl Lipton and editor Sarah Taddeo, we were able to lock in on a number of trends and stories we wanted to investigate further. Throughout this process, there were always twists and turns as we found unexpected trends or different stories relating to police accidents by looking at court cases.

One of the most important aspects of the investigation was the real human impact. Police car accidents affect the public more than one would guess. There are countless stories of victims being hurt in these accidents and officers not facing the consequences. Between the numbers and spreadsheets, there is a real human story to be told.

a group of people with laptops sit around a table
The Driving Force team (Nuahseen Husain, second from left and Jodi Upton, third from left) met for a second day of reporting workshops and brainstorming at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University in September 2023. (Photo by William Ramsey/USA Today Network)

Then there’s the uncomfortable aspects. Talking to police chiefs and getting them to submit the reports they are legally required to provide. Reaching out to victims or the families of victims to see if they would allow us to tell their story, anticipating the rejection that may follow.

The investigative process is slow. It’s a lot of small steps that aren’t always a straight path and require patience and commitment. It’s about being ready to abandon a route if there isn’t anything there. But it was work that, when it comes to fruition, enabled us to tell the story of people who were forgotten by everyone else.

I was able to be a part of a project that will make a tangible change in the world. It would never have happened without the help of Professor Husain, Professor Upton, the support I got at Newhouse and the incredible journalists at USA Today and the Central Current who taught me so many valuable skills. With the mentorship from all these wonderful people, I have developed a genuine passion for investigative and data journalism that I hope to foster into a career.

a person smiles with a closed laptop in front of them
“After working on this project and now going into my second year on campus, I’ve gained a different perspective on journalism that I can take with me wherever I end up,” said Kim. (Photo by Marilyn Hesler)

After working on this project and now going into my second year on campus, I’ve gained a different perspective on journalism that I can take with me wherever I end up. I don’t think anything can take me by surprise now.

Hayden Kim is a junior majoring in magazine, news and digital journalism at the Newhouse School and economics at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.