Peebles’ data expertise helps journalists in critical storytelling

By Ireal James, SPJ Region 3 intern

The deep southern accent is one of the first distinctions you’ll notice about Warrenton, Georgia-born Jennifer Peebles. Then she’ll hit you with facts and a relentlessness to tell the truth.

“I love finding something that people don’t know or that may be contrary to what people believe,” said Peebles.

Jennifer Peebles mug

Jennifer Peebles

As a data reporting specialist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Peebles finds herself seeking the truth with each story she is involved in telling. However, this passion for journalism was not always in her career foresight. Peebles said in her youth she would often read the AJC and thought she would eventually be a history teacher. But it wasn’t until college at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee that she would decide to look into another career path.

Peebles would begin to write for the school’s newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, and while she said her first few articles were less than incredible, she said she did not quit. Eventually she was editor of the student newspaper.

In the summer between her junior and senior year of college she would begin an internship writing for The Tennessean, the daily Nashville newspaper.

There in Nashville she would meet now retired environmental reporter for The Tennessean Anne Paine, who said she sees something different in Peebles.

“She was very focused and very concerned. She wanted to get everything correct and get to the bottom of things,” said Paine.

Former Society of Professional Journalists National President and former Political Editor for The Tennessean Frank Gibson also agrees.

Frank Gibson SPJ

Frank Gibson

He met Peebles in college as he had transported her and other students to an SPJ Regional Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas in “ a rented Cadillac.”

Her hard work as a student reporter would pay off. After graduating from college she would accept a full-time position reporting for The Tennessean, where she would work for 14 years both as a reporter and an editor.

“Very aggressive, was always good at digging. Probably the best computer-assisting reporter I’ve known,” said Gibson.

He said Peebles was one of the first people to be involved with digital reporting at The Tennessean. Gibson is the Freedom of Information Coordinator for the Tennessee Press Association.

As an editor at the newspaper she would often work with former colleague Trent Seibert, now an investigative producer at KTRK-TV in Texas. Peebles said she is still friends with Seibert today.  

Trent Seibert Texas Watch Dog

Trent Seibert

“She was one of the best editors I have had. She was very patient as a leader,” said Seibert.

In her time at The Tennessean, Peebles said in an email that she would often help other reporters and editors in the newsroom with their data questions for stories. This involvement at the newspaper would spark Peebles’ interest in the collection of data. As early as 2001, Peebles said she would attend boot camps for computer-assisted reporting, enroll in classes and obtain knowledge from books and tutorials.

After leaving The Tennessean, she was a full-time data reporter for the Texas Watchdog, an online investigative news site produced in Houston, Texas. Consequently, Peebles and Seibert did join together again as colleagues, but this time Seibert would be supervising Peebles. She was his first hire for the online publication, Seibert said.  

“The reason I hired her was that I found her to be brilliant at social media and computer-assisted data. She was a real asset to the team.” Seibert said. “She was able to oversee and teach other reporters,” he said.

She said her current role as data reporting specialist for the AJC allows her to continue with her passion of storytelling. Peebles said she seeks the truth by using databases such as Excel Spreadsheets and MicroSoft Excel in the newsroom. Some of the responsibilities of the position are to gather, “analyze and visualize data to tell journalistic stories,” states Investigative Reporters & Editors.

Brad Schrade AJC

Brad Schrade

“I would trust her with my life. I just have complete confidence and trust in her,” said AJC Investigative Reporter Brad Schrade. Peebles and Schrade also worked together at the Tennessean.

“She’s a fun person. She makes it fun working with her,” Schrade said.  

Peebles’ friends call her J.P.  They say she is one of the hardest workers they know.

Another former reporter at the Texas Watchdog is SPJ President-Elect Lynn Walsh who now works as the investigative producer for NBC in San Diego, California.

Lynn Walsh mug

Lynn Walsh

“She’s probably the person that got me into data reporting,” said Walsh.

She said Peebles was also the person to lead her back into SPJ involvement. Walsh was active in SPJ in college.

Peebles would stay with the Texas Watchdog for three years before accepting a position at the Washington Examiner in Washington, D.C., a publication specializing in political news coverage.

As a journalist in D.C., Peebles said becoming involved in reporting a story is ultimately a service you are giving to people. She said she believes open records and accuracy allow journalists to be transparent to the public they serve.

“Your government works for you, or at least it should,” she said.

At the Examiner, her data reporting skills would allow her to hold positions as data editor, managing editor and digital editor.

After giving three years to the Examiner, Peebles would return to her home state of Georgia to work for the AJC. She is someone who has been a reporter in many states. Peebles said she has grown with each job she has had.

“She’s very, very humble. Her standards and her dedication to accuracy — there are few like her. She just believes it. These are pillars of her value system,” Schrade said.

Peebles is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

On days she is not in the newsroom, Peebles said she enjoys sewing and playing the banjo.

Peebles said she believes data journalists who are just getting in the field should keep a vital mission as their goal.

“I would say to keep in mind that you’re not in it for the numbers. The story is always about people; find the people and tell their stories,” Peebles said.

Ireal James mug

Ireal James

Ireal James, an upcoming senior at Mercer University, is a Mercer Cluster Staff Writer and Board Operator at WMUB in Macon, Georgia. James is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana but lives in Georgia. She is a writer who has an interest in photography and videography that involves storytelling. She also works for ESPN3 where she has experience in working with camera equipment, camera operation, audio operation, etc. during live production broadcasts for sports games. James is the Photographer/Videographer for the Mercer University Chapter of the National Society of Negro Women as well as the Director of Marketing for the Mercer University Miracle Executive Board, an organization that fundraises for patients at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospital at Navicent Health in Macon, Georgia. James aspires to be a screenwriter for movies who happens to be a journalist interested in the coverage of stories untold previously. James’ portfolio is at https://irealjamesblogwordpresscom.wordpress.com/ and her contact is ireal.james@gmail.com.

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