Sarah Cohen: Master of Information

Durham, NC -- “Journalism is the business of mastering information,” said Sarah Cohen, the new Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. Cohen should know—she’s an expert in ferreting out critical information from complex databases and massive public records.

Before coming to Duke, she was database editor at the Washington Post for 10 years, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, a Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. In all three cases, she used her skill with numbers and databases, as well as good old-fashioned reporting, to explore ways in which government programs or the legal system were being abused at the expense of children or the poor.

Cohen gained experience in gleaning information from numbers in her first job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where she landed after earning a degree in economics from UNC-Chapel Hill.

 A class in journalism whetted her appetite and led her to journalism school at the University of Maryland. As a newspaper reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune, and ultimately the Post, her economics background quickly distinguished her from the pack. “When I went into reporting, I didn’t know that everybody didn’t know how to use a spreadsheet,” she said.

As one of the few who did, she became the go-to person for stories where reporters needed to extract and analyze information from sprawling databases.

A New School Unveils New Faculty

Sarah Cohen is one of six new faculty appointments at the new Sanford School for Public Policy for 2009-2010. Four are new to Duke— Cohen, Philip Bennett, Sarah Blodgett Bermeo and Amar Hamoudi—while two are members of the Duke faculty who have received new appointments: David Schanzer and Edward Skloot.

To learn more about these Sanford faculty members, click here.

Her new position at Duke gives Cohen the chance to be the go-to person for investigative reporters all over the state and even the country.

“Rather than having a specialist in each newsroom, how can we develop tools to take away some of the most difficult and tedious parts of watchdog reporting?” she said.

 For example, Cohen said, reporters could benefit from software that could build a chronology, search through handwritten documents or transcribe video or audio tapes. She noted that sick-leave forms for government employees are invariably handwritten, and that many government meetings are available only via video or audio.

“There’s a lot of software out there that works well enough, but it’s too hard to use, or too expensive. Reporters need to be able to turn on a browser and use it,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s out there and adapt it to the needs of reporters.”

In addition, Cohen plans to wade through vast databases and shed light on what’s there for state and local reporters. For example, the federal government is providing reams of data at www.recovery.gov about how stimulus money is being allocated and used, but the amount of information can make finding a particular set of facts time-consuming.

“I won’t be pushing story ideas, but I’ll help reporters with data,” she said.

Cohen’s experience as an investigative journalist makes her a trustworthy and credible source for reporters. And, as a professor of practice, she’ll continue to add to her experience by writing stories for the Washington Post and local papers. “If you’re working on developing tools for accountability reporting, you have to do accountability reporting,” she said.

Cohen’s love of reporting is so deep, she said, “I had no interest in ever leaving the Post.” But she decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of an academic center dedicated to supporting the role of investigative reporting in a democracy.

James Hamilton, director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, said he is thrilled she did so. “Sarah’s work as a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, deep experience as a trainer of investigative reporters, and expertise in data and analytics give her a unique set of skills,” Hamilton said. “When she accepted the Knight Chair here, I got emails and calls from many people letting me know how fortunate we are—a sentiment I share.”

This article was first published in DukeToday on October 16, 2009.