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How technology powered a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation

This photo shows the print version of the Boston Globe announcing their Pulitzer Prize

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. The best of these hold the powerful accountable.

Such a moment arose in 2019 when seven motorcyclists were killed in a New Hampshire crash. In short order, Globe reporters uncovered the truck driver’s terrible driving history and found that his license should’ve been suspended weeks prior, but wasn’t — simply because the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles had failed to open its mail and act on a warning notice 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? And how many others like him were out there?

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 wears a dark knit sweater and sits at his computer, looking at the screen and resting his hand on his face in thought.

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 relies on state agencies to do their job, which they often don’t.

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. But midway through our reporting process, we were dumping troves of files — court documents, photos, handwritten files, spreadsheets and more — into the tool.

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. So often in journalism — especially when you are dealing with mass troves of data — you are looking for outliers. Pinpoint let us figure out what was NOT there as much as what was there.

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. Technology now lets reporters take the physical pushpins and colorful string and photos and put it all on their laptop. It helps us organize the complex and see the patterns 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. Don’t get me wrong, producing in-depth investigative journalism like our recent investigation is still an immense challenge. But technology is making many processes in reporting much faster.

Brendan wears a light shirt and dark tie and sits at a long wooden table, editing a news article with a pen.

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. At least five motor vehicle agencies and court systems launched investigations into their failure to flag thousands of 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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