Reporting in the Age of Data

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(Photo: Ellie Campbell)

The rise of social media has lead to a decline in the news media as a source for breaking news. However, that does not mean journalists do not play a crucial role in the media. In fact, it is increasingly important for journalists to curate, verify and synthesize the increasing amount of information that is available on the internet, commonly in the form of data. This is when data meets journalism, which creates a  role for journalists to make data interpretable for the public by putting big numbers into context.

This report will examine if data journalism is the ‘The Future of Journalism’. It will evaluate issues that journalists face when reporting with data and evaluate the use of visualizations to present data. Additionally, it will provide examples of data journalism in action.

 

 

What is data journalism? Video by: Ellie Campbell


 

Why should journalists use data? 

 

In 1991 Philip Meyer wrote a book titled ‘The New Precision Journalism’, where he criticizes modern journalism:
“It misses important stories, is too dependent on press releases, is easily manipulated by politicians and special interests, and does not communicate what it does know in an effective manner (I).”
However, data allows journalists explore behind the politicians and their public relations, by seeking the truth of what is really happening in the world. Moreover, data journalism provides context, clarity and truth in the increasing information that is flowing through digital environments (II). Tasneem Raja, the interactive editor at the Jones Magazine, said data Journalism helps society by illuminating stories that might otherwise stay hidden, and by allowing news readers to discover how large, complex stories might relate to them (III). However, reporting with data comes with multiple issues, such as; deciding how the data is best represented, the importance of ethics when reporting with data and the difficulty news organisations and journalists face in embracing this new territory.

Data visualizations

(Data wall at Queensland University of Technology. Photo:  Ellie Campbell)

Data visualizations are an excellent social currency for sharing and attracting readers, they are attention grabbing and have the ability to be strikingly beautiful. This is why data visualizations have become increasingly prominent in the reporting arena. In David McCandless’s TED talk: ‘The beauty of data visualisation’ (V), he said that visualizing information and allowing individuals to see patterns and connections that matter helps overcome society’s information overload, or “data glut” (IV). In his talk, he used an example of America’s military budget:
“Who has the biggest military budget? It’s got to be America, right? Massive. 609 billion in 2008 — 607, rather. So massive, in fact, that it can contain all the other military budgets in the world inside itself.”
Furthermore, McCandless continuned on saying these numbers show America as:
“An aggressive, war mongeringing military machine (V).”
However, in McCandless’s article in The Guardian, he states that it is not necessarily the whole picture. Given that America is such a wealthy country, when paired with another dataset, such as GDP or the country’s earnings, it completely alters the perspective. It shows the reader that Myanmar spends the most on military, at 26 percent of GDP, and the USA spends 4 percent of GDP (IV).
Steven Few, from the Interaction Design Foundation, said data visualisations provide a cognitive advantage, due to half the brain being devoted to processing visual information (VII). This section is called the visual cortex and it is extremely fast and efficient, allowing humans to see immediately with little effort (VII). Moreover, the analytics team at Kissmetrics found that around 90% of information processed through the brain is visual, and visuals are 60,000 times faster at being processed in the brain than text (VIII) . Conversely, Steven Few explained that thinking and cognition are controlled by the cerebral cortex, which is much slower and less efficient than the visual cortex (VII). Consequently, data, without vision, requires more cognitive thinking and comprehension. Data-visualizations give its viewers an immediate impression, it utilizes more visual perception and takes advantage of the visual cortex. However, Tow Fellow, Nick Diakopoulos, said visualizations cannot be viewed as merely decoration (X). A well constructed visualization will help journalists see outliers and trends that can alter their understanding of the data, which is crucial for examining the data’s credibility (X).


Your School versus My School

The power behind interactive data visualizations is evident throughout the comparison of The Government’s ‘My School‘ and The Australian’s ‘Your School’. My School was developed with an aim to provide up-to-date quality data on the performance and resources available to more than 9,500 Australian Schools (XI).
Australian Government’s ‘My School’ (XXIII)
While it is simple and easy to navigate, My School provides many limitations in the way the data can be interpreted. For example, it is very hard to compare schools and there are no graphs to visualize the information. Justine Ferrari, National Education Correspondent from The Australian newspaper, said that she is often being called and asked to explain the figures on the my school website (XIII). This is why herself and the team at The Australian developed ‘Your School’, which was created with the aim of creating “an invaluable resource for parents weighing up the options for their children’s education” and it clearly presents the information in a user friendly way (XII).

 

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The Australian’s ‘Your School’ (XXXIV)
Through the use of pie graphs, colour, symbols and limited bulk text, The Australian’s ‘Your School’ is an example of displaying data in a user friendly, and most importantly, interactive context. Interactive data is powerful because it allows the users to manipulate and query the data to make it relevant to themselves.

Creating Successful Data Journalism Teams

 

Tow Center for Digital Journalism said that in addition to maintaining traditional ethics while reporting with data, there is an increasing demand for journalists to be more numerate, technically literate and logical (XV). Moreover, Data needs to be interrogated in a similar way that a reporter would interview human sources, except with the addition of programming tools (XV). However, these tools can be intimidating for journalists to learn. Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times, said that to break the intimidation factor, he shows journalists how simple using data can be. For example, showing journalists how to play with Google public data or Google maps (IX). The spreadsheet, SQL, data cleaning tools and mapping software are tools that the Associated Press editor, Troy Thibodeaux, said data journalists should be familiar with. However, he recommends aspiring journalists pick one or two of these tools and gaining confidence with them, instead of trying to learn all the tools (XIV). The European Journalism Centre conducted a survey to see how Journalists felt about data Journalism what a curriculum for data journalism training should look like. The results show that journalists are highly interested in data journalism, however, they lack the knowledge and resources to be able to work with data (XV).
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Data visualized by Ellie Campbell
Visualization by: Ellie Campbell
Visualization software: Piktochart
Data is extracted from the European Journalism Center survey on training needs for data journalism (XXI)

To combat this, there are multiple free and online course that are open to the public. For example, Data Driven Journalism has produced a course called: ‘Doing Journalism with Data: First Steps, Skills and Tools’ (XXII). It is comprised of video lectures, tutorials, assignments and discussion forums and it is open to anyone in the world who has an internet connection.
The International Centre for Journalists conducted a study to identify common factors behind well-established and successful data journalism teams (XIX). One of the factors they found was the location of the data journalism team in the newsroom. Simon Rogers, editor of The Guardian’s Datablog, said that: “If you’re close, it’s easier to suggest stories and become part of the process; conversely, out of site is literally out of mind (XX).” The study also found that successful data journalism teams recruit reporters and developers who work together to come up with ideas for data-driven stories. Moreover, they produce stories that show what the data means and why the audience should care.
Peter Campbell is a software developer and programmer. Here is his insight on how scripting and programming can be advantageous for journalists with an interest in data.

Video by: Ellie Campbell


Importance of ethics when Reporting with Data

In addition to learning scripting languages and coding techniques, it is important for journalists to consider journalistic ethics when reporting with data. Jeff Sonderman, Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute, said to ensure that data journalists maintain trust with the public, they need to know how to utilize data in a way that both informs and protects the public . Data can be misleading, harmful and invasive. Therefore, traditional journalistic processes and publishing standards such as; accuracy, context, clarity and fairness are important. If these standards are ignored, then publishing data can do public harm. For example, when the Westchester Journal News published a data-driven story about local gun-owners in New York. Alexander Howard, Fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said this created outrage by individuals who thought that because the coverage of the story was linked to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the people covering the gun-owner story were implying that the gun owners were a threat to public safety. Moreover, Jeff Sonderman said members of the public believed that there were ethical issues surrounding publishing names and addresses of thousands of gun permit holders as it was an invasion of their privacy. Alexander Howard explained that a better way to utilize the data would be to map the data at a neighbourhood level without mapping the individual names and addresses.

Data is an important tool for journalist to embrace, not only because the role of the media is changing, but because data helps the public decipher the wave of information that is available to them. After examining issues and themes within data journalism, it is evident that it is an integral part of the future of journalism.

Further Reading 

David McCandless’s TED talk: The_beauty_of_data_visualization
The Data Journalism Handbook:  Handbook
Free online data journalism course: Doing journalism with data
Online infographic creator: Pictochart

Reference List

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IX:

Media


 

 

A report by: Ellie Campbell.

Link to shorthand story

Word count: 1582

 

 

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