UCF Journalism Alumna is part of the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning team
A UCF graduate was part of the data collection team that helped The New York Times earn the Public Service Pulitzer Prize 2021 – the highest distinction in journalism. The price was announced last month.
Bianca Fortis ’10, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from UCF Nicholson School of Communication and Media, was part of the 20-member daily data journalism team that created the Time’ premium COVID-19 Database. The system comprehensively tracks and maps coronavirus cases, deaths and other impacts across the country during a pandemic that has killed an estimated 600,000 people in the United States.
In honoring the Pulitzer Journal, the award committee stated that the Time “Filled a data void that has helped local governments, healthcare providers, businesses and individuals be better prepared and protected.”
Fortis joined the team in May 2020, just after graduating with a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University with a specialization in Investigative Journalism. The 33-year-old worked on the Time data project until September.
After being hired, her first task was to help create a database to track coronavirus cases in nursing homes around the country.
“There was no federal tracking system, so the Time was basically trying to fill that gap, ” Fortis said recently in an interview with a journalism professor Rick Brunson ’84. “The data is so crucial to making public health decisions, and there just wasn’t any data, or some gatekeepers made it very difficult to get it.”
Initially, the big challenge was to collect disparate data across the 50 states, each with their own way of tracking cases and other statistics. At the start of the pandemic, some states, such as Alaska, did not release any data. Other states published them in different formats, such as PDFs or complex charts, which made it difficult to organize and present the data in a uniform, consistent and searchable database for all 50 states, says Fortis. .
The team pulled data from individual state websites and entered it into a massive Google spreadsheet.
“In the beginning, it was a lot of data entry, and it was difficult because each state tracked its own data differently,” says Fortis. “So we had to develop methodologies to count cases and deaths, etc. It was particularly difficult to work with Florida. ”
Another challenge was that some coronavirus data – like cases in daycares or churches – was not being tracked at all by some states. Fortis and the team combed through reports on these cases and compared them to state data, or sometimes called these institutions directly by phone to verify information on the number of cases.
Working remotely was another challenge. By the time Fortis joined the Time data team in the spring of 2020, New York City became the home and epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, averaging more than 900 deaths per day. The city, including The New York Times building, closed and staff had to work from home.
Fortis left her Brooklyn apartment and returned to her hometown of Spring Hill, Florida. The data team used a Slack channel to do their work.
In August, Fortis participated in the development of Time’ coronavirus case tracker for colleges and universities.
“As the summer ended, Time reporters had this assumption that it seemed very likely that there would be a lot of campus cases as schools begin to open for the fall semester, ”Fortis said. “At the time, very few universities published their case data online. UCF was actually one of the first, so I was proud of that fact. We received a lot of reluctance from universities that did not want to share their data with us. … But as we started publishing it got easier because schools started to understand what we were trying to do and more of them started to be more transparent about their data.
Fortis says it contributes to the Time project data was rewarding and deepened his journalistic experience. She learned a lot about public record requests and what is possible with data, especially making it visual in interactive maps and charts. She adds that what differentiates Time’ database of others was its searchability and ease of use, as well as its degree of granularity and detail in presenting clusters of cases in local communities and locations across the country.
“[For] the Time to take the initiative to accumulate all this data and create comprehensive, easy-to-use databases, I think that was really powerful at a time when the country needed it. ” Bianca Fortis ’10
“There was no national monitoring system, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for public health officials to make choices and make decisions when there is no data available,” says Fortis. “[For] the Time to take the initiative to accumulate all this data and create comprehensive and easy-to-use databases, I think that was really powerful at a time when the country needed it. We frequently received letters from readers telling us how useful they had found it. There was an employee at Time who would compile those notes and send them to us, and it was a good reminder that we were doing work that was important – especially on days when the work was tedious and boring. ”
While her work on the project ended in September, Fortis continued her development as an investigative journalist, being appointed a reporter at Columbia Journalism Investigations where she produced a story about timber trafficking in the Amazon. Most recently, she received a two-year investigative journalism fellowship with the non-profit news organization ProPublica.
The Pulitzer marks Fortis’ latest achievement in an 11-year journalistic career that has included reporting positions at Gotham Gazette and AM New York Subway newspapers. She was also an associate editor at MediaShift.org, a website that tracks new media trends, and was an investigator intern for the commercial channel CNBC.
Her success comes as no surprise to any Nicholson School faculty member who taught and worked with her when she was an undergraduate student.
“Bianca is the kind of student you remember,” says Kim Voss, professor of journalism. “I enjoyed watching the important journalism she has done over the years since graduating, and I was so excited for her when I found out she was part of the New York Times The Pulitzer Prize team. It’s an impressive and well-deserved accomplishment, and I truly believe this is just the start of an important career.
Fortis says data journalism is a growing specialty in the field and plans to continue developing its data skills.
“Reporting is so much more in-depth when you have the numbers behind it,” she says. “Data adds credibility to your story. You can talk to that person or that person and they can give you different information. You can argue with anecdotes, but you cannot argue with numbers. ”