This week we talked with the Bristol Herald Courier’s brand new data reporter, Leif Greiss.
Leif talks about what it’s been like joining the staff at the Herald Courier, the importance of data in reporting, weight lifting and more.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do.
I’m Leif Greiss, the data reporter and Bristol, Tennessee reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier.
I was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania barring my last two years at Penn State and my recent move to Bristol, I lived in Berks my entire life.
I’m new at the Herald Courier, I started on July 23 but my job is to write data-driven stories whether they’re investigative, deep dives or quick turn-around daily stories, I also am in charge of covering all things Bristol, Tennessee and I pick up whatever general assignment work my editors throw my way.
I graduated from Penn State University in 2017 with a degree in Digital and Print Journalism and a minor in Information Sciences and Technology.
In the past I’ve freelanced for the Reading Eagle, my local paper, and I spent a summer interning with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Valley News Dispatch office. As far as unpaid work goes, I wrote for the Daily Collegian, which was the highlight of my college career, volunteered as a data reporter for WhoWhatWhy.org, and I spent semester of college hanging around WEEU which is a talk and news radio station in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Welcome to Virginia! How has your time been at the Herald Courier thus far? Have you been able to hone in on some data and get some stories out since coming on board?
Thank you, I’ve had a great time at the Herald Courier so far and it’s been busy. Since I’ve gotten here we’ve had a scandal surrounding a sheriff’s texts to one of his employees, elections, a controversy over a high school changing its fight song from “Dixie”, and a local doctor who was charged with sexual battery and attempted sodomy. I personally have provided coverage on the last two subjects. I haven’t had any data heavy stories published yet, but I am working on a story about search and rescues in national parks in Tennessee and Virginia and I’ll be writing a data driven story next week, which I don’t think I can talk about yet.
That’s a lot of news in a short amount of time. It sounds like you hit the ground running. I wanted to talk about data journalism. It seems like this is your niche. How did you first get interested in data journalism? What was the first story you did that was data driven where you saw the potential of using data to break news?
I got into data journalism, when I was working on a story about Penn State’s Timely Warning system for the Daily Collegian. The Timely Warning system is mandated by the Clery Act, for universities to provide timely warnings of threats in the community and every week there seemed to be notifications for sexual assaults. So I did a story looking at what assaults were being disclosed, the details that warnings included, and how the Timely Warning system works. I used a spreadsheet to organize information from the Timely Warnings in a uniform way and while I was doing that realized I really liked working with data and how powerful datasets are for finding new questions to ask and angles of the story to look at.
Do you think data is something every newsroom should do, large or small? A lot of people tend to view it as a luxury to be able to use data in their reporting. But it seems like your turning stuff around quickly.
I can’t speak for all small newsrooms, their challenges and limitations are often unique to them. Working with data does take time and each data set is different, almost anyone who works with data can tell you one of the biggest challenges is cleaning and standardizing the data you receive so you can use it. However, I think any newsroom can benefit from having people who are reasonably data savvy and numerate. I think all journalists should be familiar with some basic principles such as mean vs. median, how to spot misleading charts, and know not rely on pie charts as a go to for data viz. I think being able to use numbers, statistics or charts in stories effectively, even stories that aren’t data focused can benefit any newsroom.
What’s been one of the strangest stats you’ve came across in a data set? Have you ever came across a number that just kind of left you perplexed?
One section of the Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS), A11f, that deals with people who have been removed form voter rolls because they are “mental incompetent” is particularly frustrating. There is no federal mandate that local governments keep track of that kind of thing so there is serious under reporting and it’s impossible to tell how many people are being removed from rolls because they are deemed “mentally incompetent.” But I can’t be too angry at the EAC, they’re the only ones asking the state for that data and there is some really good stuff to explore in the EAVS.
What are some data sets you hope to get into for the Herald Courier?
No specific datasets, but I would definitely like to do some work with Tennessee and Virginia healthcare data. I’d also like to do some stories utilizing crime data.
What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of data and newspaper-ing?
I’m not terribly interesting, I enjoy lifting weights, practicing various martial arts and I am currently attempting to learn how to cook.
Tell us one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Most people would probably be surprised that for most of my childhood I wanted to be a paleontologist.