Alumni Portrait: Lisa Pickoff-White

January 12, 2023

Our latest alumni profile features Lisa Pickoff-White, whose dedication and involvement with Berkeley Journalism continues more than a decade after she graduated. Her lasting imprint on the school is seen through the many initiatives at KQED that involve Berkeley Journalism students. She is a frequent guest speaker, sharing wisdom with students about her work and about how to navigate the journalism industry post graduate school.

Before coming to the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007, Lisa Pickoff-White didn’t know data journalism was a possible subject to pursue. Fourteen years later, she is at the forefront of the industry as the first and only full-time data journalist at KQED with a focus on investigative reporting.

Photo: Buddy Terry (’23)

Pickoff-White always had an interest in the internet, finding community in fandoms from “Sailor Moon” to “The X-Files.” But it was not until later in her career that she realized the possibilities of online storytelling.

Pickoff-White, who grew up in New York and New Jersey, studied journalism at American University and gained reporting experience at United Press International and the National Journal in Washington, D.C. She came to the J-School to expand her skills on the multimedia track and found that, unlike the field, the track was female-dominated.

One of the first — and what would turn out to be most impactful — projects Pickoff-White worked on while at Berkeley was the Chauncey Bailey Project. Bailey was an Oakland-based journalist who was shot and killed for his reporting on Your Black Muslim Bakery’s finances in 2007, just before Pickoff-White’s first semester. The work was inspired by The Arizona Project, in which journalists across the country came together in Phoenix to complete Arizona Republic investigative reporter Dan Bolles’ work after he was killed by a car bomb in the late 1970s.

“I really learned about investigative journalism through the Chauncey Bailey Project,” Pickoff-White said. She collected garbage liens at the Alameda County Courthouse and entered the data into Excel to create a network of the people associated with Yusef Bey IV, who was eventually convicted of ordering Bailey’s murder along with Antoine Mackey. Bey and his associates owned real estate throughout the Bay Area and some of those people didn’t pay their garbage bills, which meant the liens provided useful information about the people associated with each property. Pickoff-White also reported with newspapers and radio stations and helped produce the project’s website.

Photo: Buddy Terry (’23)

The Bailey Project would go on to win two Online News Association awards including the Knight Public Service Award and Investigative Journalism Award in 2009. Pickoff-White credits it with helping her see how she could use public information in creative ways.

She remembers the late Professor Paul “Grabs” Grabowicz, head of the multimedia program and her mentor, saying, “What you’re doing has a name, and it’s called data journalism.”

Jeremy Rue, who also taught Pickoff-White, remembers Grabowicz’s mentorship fondly. “Grabs really saw something extraordinary in Lisa, and is the one who nurtured her passion for journalism. Grabs used a uniquely innovative mixture of profanity and encouragement to get Lisa to produce her best work,” Rue recalled.

Grabowicz had rejected Pickoff-White’s first master’s project proposal, instead encouraging her to pursue something “more fun.” Pickoff-White produced a multimedia project about the history and subculture of B-movies from the 1950s to the 2000s and how independent theaters were using them to grow their audiences.

The project used interactive moving displays with video, text, audio and graphics. Rue recalls “how cutting edge her project was for its time.” It won an Online News Association Online Journalism Award in 2009.

After graduating in 2009, Pickoff-White worked as an online producer at the Center for Investigative Reporting for a year on California Watch, which focused on statewide policy. She then moved to KQED, first as a digital producer and eventually helped to create and fill the role of data journalist. There, Pickoff-White has reported on wildfires, PG&E, policing and crime.

Lisa Pickoff-White and Professor Paul “Grabs” Grabowicz in 2009. Photo:
Armand Emamdjomeh (’10)

In a five-month investigation into the October 2017 Northern California fires, Pickoff-White, Sukey Lewis (’15) and Marisa Lagos unveiled the failures and missteps of local and state officials. Pickoff-White and her colleagues reviewed thousands of 911 calls and carried out dozens of interviews to recreate the first 24 hours of the event and dig deep into the systemic issues in the state’s emergency response procedures. The piece was a Peabody Award finalist.

While working on that story, Pickoff-White was struck by the impact of the fire on older people (the average age of those who died during the Camp Fire in Butte County was 72), which spurred her to join her colleagues on a larger investigation and interactive map showing how those in long-term care facilities are at risk for wildfires. The interactive, “Older and Overlooked,” won the national Murrow Award in investigative reporting, large market radio in 2020.

Most recently, Pickoff-White has been working closely with the California Reporting Project to obtain and distribute records and data about uses of force resulting in serious injuries and sustained findings of police misconduct in California law-enforcement agencies. The project involves about 40 news organizations including the Investigative Reporting Program (Krissy Waite (‘23), Bella Arnold (‘24), Irene Benedicto (’23) and Ananya Tiwari (‘24) are the current UC Berkeley CRP interns working with Pickoff-White.) The project is in tandem with the Community Law Enforcement Accountability Network, which builds open source tools so that people can extract data from similar records across the country.

Through the CRP, Pickoff-White has contributed reporting and data on use of force incidents by the Bakersfield police for KQED, injuries from police dog bites in Richmond for The Mercury News and how Bakersfield police’s failure to identify those experiencing mental health crises has led to use of force, injuries and deaths, for KVPR.

Pickoff-White said she has experienced burnout from reporting intense stories, but the direct impact of her work is significant.

In 2017, someone who owned a house near one of the fires emailed Pickoff-White to say they’d been using her fire tracker to see if their house had burned down.

“That’s a lot of weight on me,” Pickoff-White said. “But I also feel really grateful that I get to wake up and think that what I do matters. And sometimes it matters in a frightening way.”

By Lola Proctor (’23)

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