Emmanuel Martinez digs into the data

Emmanuel Martinez freely admits to something that would have been shocking in the world of journalism not too long ago: He’s good at math.

His skill at using very large data sets to find very human stories has earned him widespread accolades. As a data reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, Martinez, along with colleague Aaron Glantz, created the series “Kept Out,” which uncovered ongoing housing discrimination against African Americans and other people of color.

The series won the 2019 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting and was named as a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism

Martinez, who earned his master’s degree in print and digital journalism in 2014, said the most rewarding part of the whole process for him has been the messages he has received from people of color about the impact the stories have had. He recalled one anecdote about a man who, after repeatedly being denied a loan, “just got fed up” and paid cash. “If you can buy the building in cash and the bank is telling you ‘no,’ what is happening there?”

Raised in a small rural town near Fresno, California, by parents who had emigrated from Mexico, Martinez earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Irvine, focusing on literary journalism. When he came to USC Annenberg for his graduate studies, “I knew I wanted to do journalism — and that’s all I knew,” he said. Most of his first year, he vacillated from wanting to do long-form writing, to long-form radio, to TV pieces. “I was kind of all over the place,” he admitted.

It was lecturer Dana Chinn who introduced him to data journalism — finding stories within data and spreadsheets. “I really gravitated toward that because growing up, math was the subject that came most naturally to me,” he said. “Data journalism was a good way to marry that analytical math skill set with storytelling.”

After graduating from USC Annenberg, Martinez began a Google Journalism Fellowship, which placed him at The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in the Bay Area, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. That fellowship led directly to his being hired full time as a data journalist there.

“Investigative reporting is either digging through documents or digging through data,” he said. “The higher-ups at CIR saw the power of data in terms of storytelling.”

The idea that became the award-winning “Kept Out” series started with an observation from Glantz, Martinez’s reporting partner, that rates of home ownership among African Americans were actually lower today than they were in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed.

To uncover why and how this was happening, Martinez used data collected through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which requires lenders to report their mortgage applications to the federal government. By setting the right parameters, he discovered that loan applicants of color were being denied at much higher rates than white applicants of the same income level.

The next step in the year-long project was the on-ground reporting to get the human stories behind the numbers. What they found led to sweeping change: Philadelphia, where some of the largest gaps were found, launched a program to review home loan applications from people of color who had been denied. Attorneys general in five states and the District of Columbia launched investigations of discriminatory practices in mortgage lending. Major banks took steps to improve the diversity of their lending.

“The data drove the narrative,” Martinez said. “When you can combine the personal experience with the data, it puts a face to the analysis,” he said. “It makes the analysis more accessible to the public and you’re able to have tremendous impact.”