Matt Carroll: Numbers Man in the Spotlight

Producer/Editor: Roselyn Du
Project Assistants: Zoe Hu/Bobo Wei

 

(Matt Carroll interviewed by Roselyn Du and her students at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2018)

Matt Carroll was in Hong Kong in October 2018. He was invited to be a keynote speaker for the week-long Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop (PPWW) held at Hong Kong Baptist University. The rooms where he spoke were always more than full, with some people having to stand at the aisles or sit on the floor.

Movie effects? Perhaps. But Matt Carroll himself is really a personable, charismatic, and charming character.

Before switching to journalism education and becoming a Professor of Practice at Northeastern University in Boston, Carroll had worked at the Boston Globe for 26 years as a “numbers  man.” As first-generation data journalist in the U.S., he started to be labeled as a data journalist in the mid-1990s before  he joined the  investigative team at The Boston Globe – called Spotlight, which in 2003, won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for The Boston Globe for its coverage of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal. Twelve years later, the serial scandal reports were turned into a homonymous movie that later claimed the two Oscar awards in 2016: Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay.

Carroll was on the Spotlight team for around six years as the spreadsheet guy. Because of his instrumental role in the priest scandal coverage, he was involved in the movie’s script writing  as well. “That story idea came  from Martin Baron – he read a column about an abusive priest and how all the records in this case were sealed and how this abusive priest has been moved from parish to parish and left a trail of abused kids behind in the hallway. Martin did  not understand why these records were  sealed. So, he wanted to give it to the Spotlight  team to dive deep into it.” Carroll said this is how the Spotlight team’s investigation on  the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal came into being. However, tracing back to fifteen years earlier the “dry-as-dust datum and numbers” of priests were not attractive to any of Carroll’s bosses or colleagues. “My bosses didn’t understand what I was doing or realize how important data was. But they would send me for training and they encouraged me to do stories. So, there was a lot of institutional support.”  It sounds like a heavy question – how to convince your team of the value of data and what is the connection with journalism? Carroll thinks it was lucky that he had a considerate boss who supported his work.

That question might still be hard to be fully explained nowadays, but data journalism was not just about searching and cleaning the data. Carroll spent a year trying to find out the reasons why some priests were on sick leave and moved from parish to parish way more frequently. To do so, he had to do fact checking person by person to see if their behaviors, which could be seen from the data matched with certain patterns, together with asking victims about the identities of priests who molested or abused them, and also checking  the court documents. That process was not interesting , but it was important. The data per se may be easy, but “it took a long, long time and it was really boring. It was basically just flip the page. You read down a column: sick leave, circle the name, just keep going down: sick leave, and just mark the pages. And then you go back when you started making a list of all the guys were on sick leave.” Wow. How exciting.

The making of the serial reports and the participation in the movie’s creation did not consume Carroll’s patience, perseverance, or tenacious attitude towards data journalism. “I didn’t have to be the front man. We had plenty of guys who want to be out there.” Carroll was still Carroll, quite content with sitting in the background  and waiting for stories being extracted from the data. This is his ideal working vibe. 

Being the “spreadsheet guy,” Carroll has witnessed  the Internet-based technologies booming at the turn of the new century. He still remembers clearly when Google  initially released Google Fusion Tables  in 2006 along with Google Drive services. “I thought Google Fusion Tables  was great when it came out, but they are stopping innovating on it. I mean they really stopped  fixing it or making it better. So, what happened is other people have created new tools like Tableau.”

“We will see in ten years that the data visualization thing will look a lot different, but it is still  about the basics. A woman from the Wall Street Journal says: bar charts are really good. Everyone understands bar charts. Don’t be ashamed using bar charts. She is totally right. If you can use a bar chart, use a bar chart.” But Carroll also doesn’t doubt that “within five years there will be something else that will replace Tableau.” It’s just the way of the world, he says. Carroll still holds the view that technology constantly updates, so people have to keep learning and pay attention to the rapid transformation.

That is also what he teaches his students at Northeastern University in Boston.  In Carroll’s view, the incorporation of data has been altering everything, let alone the working routines of professional journalists. Data nowadays is more than a tool to create a story that based on facts, it is a critical way to make professional journalists distinctive and helps add credibility to profession. “You are seeing a lot more effort at transparency now, where people are saying: okay, here is my data, here is my story and here is the data I used to do story. If you want to download my data, you can look at my data. If there is a problem, let me know.” To Carroll, this is a glorious image of people who practice data journalism and promote data transparency, “it’s really fun; it makes you a much better reporter.”

During his brief stint with MIT’s Media Lab, Carroll’s responsibility was largely to deal with thorny issues confronting journalism. “Those thorny issues are still thorny issues: Revenue,  Platforms.” Carroll thinks that the development of data-driven stories  does a lot for everyone who learns, even the readers. “Not only the reporters have to figure out how to tell stories better and the designers, but readers have to figure this out too, because some data visualization is fairly complicated, and you have to think about it: what are these people doing?” However, journalists and their media organizations have been trying to find a path to sustainability  and this issue, unfortunately, seems even more pressing for data journalism. While on the verge of survival, who can guarantee content first, who is still digging into data, and who can afford burying themselves in data-driven stories? Those questions are being asked every day.

References:

Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design https://camd.northeastern.edu/faculty/matthew-carroll/

The 2003 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Public Service https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/boston-globe-1


Posted by: R. Du

Leave a Reply