“Data is a good way of getting to the truth of things… in this post truth era, this work is increasingly important. We are all desperately searching for facts.”
That quote, attributed to a U.S. based journalist in a discussion with Google, is symptom of modern times. A time where the age of information has transformed into the age of disinformation and growing consensus has formed that the only thing that can steadily be relied upon, is data.
The simple answer to the question – what is data journalism –is that it is a journalistic role in which data is made interpretable for the public by putting big numbers into context.
Most people tend to think of data as any collection of numbers, but in today’s digital world almost anything can be and is described with numbers. What sets data journalism apart from regular journalism is the ability to tell a compelling story combined with the range of digital information journalists now have access to.
This approach provide a journalist with the necessary information to tell complex stories through a variety of media such as infographics, or it can help explain how a story relates to people on an individual basis. It can even open the news gathering process itself. Data is often the source of a story but it can also be the tool with which a story is told – or it can be both.
However, like any source, it should be looked at carefully, and like any tool, journalists should be conscious of how it can shape and restrict the stories they create with it.
The Prevalence of Data Journalism
In collaboration with PolicyViz, Google conducted a series of interviews along with an online survey in an effort to better understand how journalists around the world are using data to tell stories. They conducted 56 in-person interviews with journalists in the U.S., UK, Germany and France in addition to an online survey that reached more than 900 journalists.
The research showed that 42% of today’s journalists use data to tell stories twice or more each week. In addition, 51% of all news organizations in the U.S. and Europe have a dedicated data journalist. This stat increases to 60% when referring to platforms that are solely digital.
While data journalism is experiencing enormous growth, it still faces challenges. More than half of the survey sample considered data journalism to be a specialty skill that requires extensive training and is not easy to pick up. Because of this, dedicated data journalists have limited bandwidth, which affects the time pressures traditional journalists are under when creating a story with data – 49% of data stories are created in one day or less.
The return on investment for data journalism is still a bit unclear, especially considering the amount of resources that are typically dedicated to these stories. However, according to the survey, more than half of respondents still want their organizations to use more data when it comes to telling stories.
Why Are Journalists Using Data?
“The data has to be brought alive by people.” -Michael Rezendes, renowned reporter for the Boston Globe
The power of media collaboration and Big Data technology is especially shaping the future of investigative journalism, which seeks to hold those in seats of power accountable.
Data allows journalists to go beyond politicians and their public relations personnel. More than anything else, data journalism provides context, clarity and truth in the increasing amount of digital information that exists in the world today.
Interactive editor for Mother Jones Magazine, Tasneem Raja, believes data journalism helps society by shining a light on stories that might otherwise stay hidden, in addition to helping readers understand how large, complex stories might relate to them.
The Panama Papers exposed the financial crimes of the Panamanian wealth management firm Mossack Fonseca and as well as the leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records. That story was only possible because of technology that could analyze and scrutinize such high volumes of data.
That said, the story still required a good amount of old-fashioned reporting. Regardless of the data, people (sources) are still a at the core of journalism.
Making the Data Visual for Readers
Data visualizations are a good tool for sharing and attracting readers. Because they grab and hold the reader’s attention, they have become increasingly important when it comes to telling stories of all kinds. British journalist and information designer, David McCandless, in his Ted talk titled “The Beauty of Data Visualization” puts it this way: “helping readers visualize the information allows them to see patterns and connections and can be a big help in overcoming society’s information overload.”
Using America’s military budget as an example, McCandless asked the question, “Who has the biggest military budget? It’s got to be America right?” If you look at the numbers, America’s military budget is actually so large that it can contain all other military budgets in the world inside of it.
However, in an article for The Guardian, McCandless states that this is not necessarily the entire picture. Because America is such a wealthy country, if you pair it with another dataset, such as GDP or another country’s earnings, it completely changes the perspective.
It shows that Myanmar’s military budget is really the largest, at 26% of their GDP, whereas America only spends 4% of their GDP on military expenses.
Stephen Few, an information technology innovator from the Interaction Design Foundation, feels that visualizations provide readers with a cognitive advantage because half of the brain is dedicated to processing visual information. This section of the brain is known as the visual cortex and is extremely fast and efficient, which allows humans to see and understand things with little effort.
This means that data without visuals requires more cognitive thinking, or engagement of the cerebral cortex, a much slower and inefficient area of the brain.
Additionally, a well-constructed data visualization helps highlight trends for journalists using it, which may alter their understanding of the data. This is crucial when examining the data’s credibility.
Keeping Ethics In Mind
Data does have the potential to be harmful, misleading and invasive. This is why it is important for journalists to keep journalistic ethics in mind when reporting with data. If data journalists want to maintain the public’s trust, they need to know how to use data in a way that informs, but also protects the public by making publishing standards such as accuracy, context, clarity and fairness an important part of the storytelling process. When these standards are ignored, data taken out of context can represent fiction peddled as fact.
Data is an important tool for journalists to embrace, not only because the media landscape is shifting, but because it can help the public break down and better understand the amount of information that is available to them.