It’s not every day that a Stanford student’s class assignment culminates with a Pulitzer Prize.

Jackie Botts shared a 2021 Pulitzer Prize on an investigative journalism project she started as part of a Stanford class she took in spring quarter 2018. (Image credit: Courtesy Jackie Botts)

For Jackie Botts, sharing one of journalism’s most prestigious awards with a team of reporters at Reuters was the last thing she expected when she began working with them as part of a journalism class at Stanford.

The project – an investigation into qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that has protected law enforcement officers from being held accountable when they use excessive force – grew out of Botts’ assignment in the course, Becoming a Watchdog: Law, Order & Algorithms, taught in spring quarter of 2018 by Sharad Goel, founder and faculty director of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, and Communication lecturer and data journalist Cheryl Phillips. In the class, students collaborated with newsrooms in advancing their data journalism investigations.

“Data journalism is the difference between having sources tell you that there is a trend and actually being able to prove it,” said Botts, who earned her bachelor of science in Earth systems in 2017 and her master’s degree in journalism in 2018.

Reuters data editor Janet Roberts and Phillips had talked about an observation Reuters reporters had noticed in a dissent written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2017, which criticized the court for leaning more towards the side of the police than victims in excessive force cases.

The Reuters reporters and editors wanted to determine whether that was true or not.

When the staff first briefed Botts and her classmates on the group project, “We were all hurriedly trying to take notes in Cheryl’s classroom and understand what any of the legal jargon meant,” Botts recalled.

“We were completely overwhelmed by the information,” Botts said. “We were trying to get our head around the task, which was essentially to figure out how to bring unstructured data into a spreadsheet.”

Over spring quarter, Botts and other students in her group worked closely with Reuters data editor Janet Roberts and the Supreme Court reporters. The students began combing through court documents in search of cases related to officers being sued by survivors of victims’ families for using excessive force. Computer science students even worked on an algorithm to help sift through the cases.

Increasingly it became clear to Botts and her classmates that their efforts were just beginning.

“In school, you’re used to your assignments not really going beyond the classroom, but this one ultimately turned into this big project,” Botts said.

Botts continued the effort in a summer internship in 2018 that Reuters twice extended, allowing her to work on the project for about a year. Her Stanford classmate, Guillermo Gomez, who earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and political science in 2016, and was earning his master’s degree in management science and engineering at the time, also joined her that summer.

Together, they reviewed thousands of court opinions from the federal appellate courts, district courts in California and Texas, as well as Supreme Court rulings from 2005 through 2019. They inputted dozens of characteristics – like what type of force was used, when qualified immunity was invoked and how the judge ruled – into a spreadsheet.

Eventually, a massive database was created and required Botts had to learn a computer programming language before she could analyze it.

Their findings confirmed Sotomeyer’s suspicion: “An officer was 3.5 times more likely than a civilian to have a petition accepted,” by the Supreme Court, Botts and her colleagues wrote.

They also found that the scope of qualified immunity has been expanding over the years.

“Our analysis of this data showed the appellate courts’ growing tendency, influenced by guidance from the Supreme Court, to grant police immunity,” they wrote. “More than ever, they are ignoring the question of whether cops have violated a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, thereby avoiding establishing a precedent for future cases and making it harder to win cases against the police.”

In total, it took Reuters about two years to complete their investigation. The final report, titled “Shielded,” also detailed narratives showing the racial disparities of how qualified immunity is applied and the impact on Americans’ second amendment rights.

The reporters’ hard work resulted in the team, which included Andrew Chung, Lawrence Hurley, Andrea Januta and Jaimi Dowdell, receiving the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting – an award they shared with the Atlantic’s Ed Yong for his coverage on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pulitzer committee commended the Reuters team for their “exhaustive examination, powered by a pioneering data analysis.”

“When I started as an intern at Reuters, I really didn’t think this was going to happen. It’s truly only possible because of Cheryl and the Stanford team,” Botts said.

A mutually beneficial relationship

Botts is one of five students from Philips’ classes whom Roberts has hired as interns for Reuters’ data journalism team.

“The value of it is to give students a really immersive experience in investigative journalism,” said Roberts. “We try to seed the project in the class so that when the student arrives in New York he or she already knows what he or she is working on. They are grounded in the project, know the goal, have started working and can hit the ground running.”

For Phillips, this type of hands-on experience and collaboration leads not only to better stories but better learning experiences for students as well.

“Much of really impactful journalism today is made possible by collaborations and being able to connect students into newsrooms where they can practically contribute to a project and see how a newsroom works,” Phillips said. “There are just benefits all the way around.”

Phillips is a pioneer in this pedagogical approach. In fall of 2018, Philips launched Big Local News, an effort to help local newsrooms with the data collection and analysis needed for investigative reporting. In her courses, Big Local Journalism: a project-based class (COMM 177B) and Investigative Watchdog Reporting (COMM 177I), Phillips continues to match students with newsrooms across the country to help them build the datasets they need to write impactful stories.

Botts now works at CalMatters, a news organization that focuses on California policy and politics, where she covers income inequity. On the day Botts found out she won the Pulitzer, there was a work happy hour event for the CalMatters incoming summer intern team.

“I am now mentoring an intern for the first time myself, which is really exciting,” Botts said.