Jackie Botts shared a 2021 Pulitzer Prize on an investigative journalism project she started as part of a Stanford class she took in spring quarter 2018. (Image credit: Courtesy Jackie Botts)

It’s not every day that a Stanford student’s class assignment culminates with a Pulitzer Prize.

For Jackie Botts, sharing one of journalism’s most prestigious awards with a team of reporters at Reuters was the last thing she expected when she began working with them as part of a journalism class at Stanford.

The project – an investigation into qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that has protected law enforcement officers from being held accountable when they use excessive force – grew out of Botts’ assignment in the course, Becoming a Watchdog: Law, Order & Algorithms, taught in spring quarter of 2018 by Sharad Goel, founder and faculty director of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, and Communication lecturer and data journalist Cheryl Phillips. In the class, students collaborated with newsrooms in advancing their data journalism investigations.

“Data journalism is the difference between having sources tell you that there is a trend and actually being able to prove it,” said Botts, who earned her bachelor of science in Earth systems in 2017 and her master’s degree in journalism in 2018.

Reuters data editor Janet Roberts and Phillips had talked about an observation Reuters reporters had noticed in a dissent written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2017, which criticized the court for leaning more towards the side of the police than victims in excessive force cases.

The Reuters reporters and editors wanted to determine whether that was true or not.

When the staff first briefed Botts and her classmates on the group project, “We were all hurriedly trying to take notes in Cheryl’s classroom and understand what any of the legal jargon meant,” Botts recalled.

“We were completely overwhelmed by the information,” Botts said. “We were trying to get our head around the task, which was essentially to figure out how to bring unstructured data into a spreadsheet.”

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