David Eads, who came to ProPublica Illinois from National Public Radio, believes reporters should focus on stories that people are purposefully overlooking because if there’s one thing journalism has taught him, it’s “to find and examine regimes of not knowing.” In the seventh of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Eads chatted with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist and a news apps developer?
I consider myself a journalist first, but somebody who does it with coding, data and design.
The first sort of news technology intervention I ever facilitated was probably in 1995 or 1996, when I built the website for my high school newspaper. But I got really serious about it after I moved to Chicago. I moved to Chicago to study physics in 1999, and in 2000 I met Jamie Kalven, who is a journalist. He broke the Laquan McDonald story. I worked with him on a project called “The View from the Ground” about public housing. We were working out of a squatted unit in public housing. That was the office. We didn’t have a printing press, we didn’t have a radio station, but the web was emerging. In a lot of ways, I taught myself a lot of what I know about coding out of necessity. The inspiration was: How do you have an impact without a lot of resources?
How would you explain your position as news apps developer at ProPublica Illinois to the general reader?
Ideally, I don’t tell people anything. I show them. A significant part of my job is framing choices that are in technology. You have a story and you say, “Which kind of social play is it? Is this a social play where we need to get a lot of momentum on Twitter? Is it Snapchat? Is it Instagram? Is it email and we’re trying to get in the inboxes of old-school politicians? Is it Facebook and we want to reach the masses?” It’s all these kinds of questions. You have to look at the content of the story, the design and think about how it’s gonna live on the internet.
What are some underreported stories in Illinois that you wish had more coverage?
It’s hard to know what’s underreported because there’s not enough people even watching. Part of it is because the professional reporting corps has shrunk so much. We need some strategies to overcome that. A really good one is City Bureau, another local organization, and their Documenters program. We’re partnering with them to help them on the technological side. They’re gonna put people into the field to cover all these public meetings. There’s real opportunity to just get people to those meetings, teach them how to turn on a camera and take good notes, and, all of a sudden, we’re finding what’s not being reported.
How do you hope the stories that you help build with ProPublica Illinois will spark change?
A huge lesson of working in public housing is that we would hear from very high-level people in the Chicago Housing Authority, and they would say, “I thought this is an issue, too, and I didn’t have ammunition until you published this thing about someone who’s living in a burned-out apartment.” Independent investigations create a space for people to overcome those bureaucratic or institutional obstacles and make the world a little bit better place. I don’t think that happens a lot, but sometimes. I guess if I could sum it up in a single phrase, I want to create work that is useful and troubling.
What reporting and/or storytelling techniques would you like to experiment with at ProPublica Illinois?
I’d like to work on building tools and techniques so local journalism outlets are competing for the right stuff. We should be competing on the quality of our reporting. We shouldn’t be competing on who can afford software developers because nobody can afford software developers. We should be pooling those resources to create common infrastructures and then competing around how we tell the stories or serve our audiences. I think that’s a place where I really want to work.
What’s the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
As a society we spend a lot of time and effort not knowing things. You’d think that not knowing is a passive kind of activity, but I think in some cases averting our eyes from essential moral scandals is actually a social effort. It takes work to not know how badly the Chicago Police Department behaves at times. It takes work to avert our eyes from what somebody like a Harvey Weinstein was doing. One thing journalism has taught me is to find and examine not knowing. Where we’re putting effort into looking away from, that’s where journalists should be looking.
Who are some of your journalism role models?
My two great heroes are Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells. The two Idas. Ida Tarbell for essentially inventing modern investigative journalism as we know it. And Ida B. Wells for fearlessly and passionately cataloging and writing about lynching in America. She was making data science arguments about what the causes of lynching could be and comparing them against these popular narratives.