GOOGLE: How Technology Powered A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Investigation

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Editor’s note: Brendan McCarthy, the Deputy Projects Editor at The Boston Globe, talks about how technology moved forward their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation “Blind Spot.” The team analyzed thousands of documents using Pinpoint, an AI tool from Google that enables journalists to upload and analyze documents in seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. Pinpoint is available now, and reporters can sign up to request access.

At the Boston Globe, we are privileged to have ample resources dedicated to accountability journalism, including the storied Spotlight Team and a quick-strike investigative team that tackles stories “off the news.” The result: We don’t just cover breaking news events but are able to pursue and dive into stories that people don’t know about yet — but they should. These are the best journalists.

Such a moment arose in 2019 when seven motorcyclists were killed in a New Hampshire crash. Globe reporters quickly discovered the truck driver’s poor driving record and determined that his license shouldn’t have been suspended for weeks. This was because the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles failed to open its mail or act on a warning notice sent from another state.

That led our reporters to ask a series of key questions: How had the driver slipped unnoticed through the cracks of the state licensing system? How many other drivers were like him?

The team requested public records from all 50 states, conducted a nationwide survey and built a database of vehicle crashes, trucking mishaps and more. Through voluminous data work and nose-to-the-grindstone reporting over the course of 11 months, the team found an answer: Deadly, preventable crashes like this are shockingly common.

Vernal Coleman was one of the investigative reporters awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Blind Spot.”

Despite nearly 50 years of warnings by federal safety officials, the United States has no effective national system to keep tabs on drivers who commit serious offenses in another state. Enforcement is dependent on the state agencies to do their jobs, which they often fail to do.

When we launched the investigation, we hadn’t gotten fully acquainted with Pinpoint, a new Google tool where you can upload documents to easily search for names, places and more for patterns. Midway through the reporting process, we discovered that we were uploading a lot of files into the tool, including court documents, photos and spreadsheets.

A couple of helpful aspects of Pinpoint are its ability to recognize text in images and organizational capabilities, like the opportunity to quickly see, and search documents for, the most mentioned names or places and connections between people. When you’re dealing with large data sets, journalism is all about looking for outliers. Pinpoint allowed us to see what wasn’t there and what was.

There’s this image that comes to mind — it’s a bit of a Hollywood, true-crime, detective trope — of a corkboard with mugshots and documents tacked up with pushpins, and lines of colorful string connecting the suspects. Reporters can now take photos, pushpins, and colorful string to their laptops thanks to technology. It allows us to organize complex information and identify the pattern of a story.

It’s remarkable to think of the arduous, painstaking document work that newsroom data specialists did for years, all by hand, all without a laptop and technology. It’s still a huge challenge to produce in-depth investigative journalism such as our recent one. Technology is making reporting easier.

Brendan McCarthy, the Deputy Projects Editor at The Boston Globe, edits an article at the organization’s offices

In light of our reporting, officials in several states suspended dozens of licenses. Five motor vehicle agencies and courts launched investigations into the failure to flag thousands more dangerous drivers. The 11-month investigation also propelled several proposed legislative reforms and reviews.

The series forced readers to confront the reality that we’ve grown numb to countless preventable deaths, and tolerable of lax government oversight that we would never permit in other arenas of our lives. For this work, the Globe received the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.

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