A Closer Look at the Best Data Journalism Stories of 2017

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The best data journalism empowers its creators to tell stories in innovative ways.

Data is changing the way we tell stories.

In September 2017, Google reported that 42% of reporters use data to tell stories twice or more per week. Over half (51%) of news organizations in the U.S. and Europe have dedicated data journalists.

In a year of Fake News, data journalism was more important than ever. As one data journalist said to Google:

“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 the facts.”

Here are five of the best data journalism stories from 2017 that exemplified this mission:

“Unfounded” – The Globe and Mail

In their full 2017 report on data journalism, Google listed this piece of data journalism as an example for stories that use data to investigate. In a 20-month investigation compiling policing data from over 870 police forces, The Globe found that one in every five sexual assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as “baseless and thus unfounded.” The national unfounded rate is 19.39%, which is dramatically higher than other crime.

This investigation made an impact not only with the data it shared, but how it personalized and illustrated the issue through victim stories, interactive graphics, scientific information and interviews of law enforcement. This story is part of a series of Globe investigations on how police handle sexual assault allegations.

“Race Behind Bars” – The New York Times

This article, published by the New York Times, doesn’t have fancy interactive graphics like some of the other articles featured, but it does use data to share an important story: the bias in how black prisoners are treated compared to white prisoners in an unbiased format.

While technically published in December 2016, this article was on the 2017 shortlist for “Investigation of the Year” by the Global Editors Network (GEN). The article uses data to portray a story not often told – most investigations focus on the “front end” of the prison system, not what happens after prisoners are locked up. The reporters examined prison records and interviewed inmates from facilities in different areas to create a comprehensive view of the unjust treatment of black prisoners.

“Fenced Out” – Washington Post

Another piece from the GEN 2017 shortlist, the second episode of Washington Post series, “Fenced Out,” combines data, graphics, sound, videos and words to tell the story of how Europe is counteracting the tidal wave of refugees fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria  by using border fences. The Post sent journalists to the borders to get behind the scenes of the refugee crisis and showcase multiple points of view alongside data to create the story.

The work is innovative, according to the GEN, because it “goes beyond the verticals or standalone visualizations to create a new format: immersive data storytelling.”

“If you’re black” – Tampa Bay Times

Another GEN shortlist pick and example of immersive data storytelling, this investigation from the Tampa Bay Times reviewed over 50,000 documents and found specific circumstances of racial breakdowns in police shootings: “unarmed, traffic stop, reaching but unarmed, running away, shot in the back, minor or no crime.”

“It Was Not Always the East” – Berliner Morgenpost

Google picked this German piece of data journalism as an example of stories that explain with data. The article was published before the federal election, showing how and why German Parliament is becoming more right-wing for the first time in decades. Combining interactive maps, videos, graphs and fact-checking, the article used data to show and predict the election results – the right wing did get more seats in Parliament.

Data Journalism: Continuing Issues

The best data journalism empowers its creators to tell stories in innovative ways, but there are also issues emerging in the field. According to Google’s report, there is a lack of data journalists possessing the specialized skills needed to create these stories, including cleaning, processing and analyzing data.

Data visualization tools are also lagging behind what’s needed, so much that newsrooms are creating their own software.

The return on investment of data journalism is also unclear, as it takes time and resources. However, journalists interviewed by Google felt that data was critical to the modern newsroom – 4 in 5 agreed that all journalists need to be comfortable reporting on data. As one respondent said:

“The world’s a complex place, but by visualizing and seeing patterns we can make it seem less complicated.”

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Haley DeLeon is a writer and editor at Bisk. She has written on a variety of topics, including psychology, business and information technology. She is currently a graduate student studying audience analytics and mass communication.

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