Introducing Fact Tank: An Interview with Pew Research Center President Alan Murray


The Pew Research Center recently announced its new data journalism platform, Fact Tank. The platform enables the think tank to present its work directly to the public, often providing background information that sheds light on current events. As a recent article on business models in data journalism speculates, we are likely to see many data producers establish data journalism operations in the future. Pew's Fact Tank shows us a glimpse of this future. To learn more about how it was set up and what it will add to the field, we asked Alan Murray, president of the Center, to tell us more about this new initiative. 

Alan Murray. Image credits: Wall Street Journal

In what way is Fact Tank different from what you have been doing at Pew Research up until now?

“In two ways, really. Obviously, we collect vast amounts of data, about demographics, about a variety of issues - we are basically a data shop. In the past, most of the dissemination of our data has been done through existing media. But we also felt it was important for us to get our own data relating to news events out to the public more quickly and more directly. Additionally, we also felt it was important for us to play a role in aggregating data sets which we can then present ourselves.”

The idea to launch a data journalism platform has been brewing for a while at the Center, until it finally reached its maturation point: “About a year ago, we launched an internal test - writing a number of data blogs which we did not publish. The quality of this work was very good, and we felt we were ready to start”, adds Murray.

What is the composition of the team?

"The Center is this interesting combination of journalists and social scientists. The journalists keep the scientists focused, stopping them from wandering off with every new idea, and the scientists keep the journalists honest and rigorous. As a result, we have 130 people, many of them with a journalistic background, who can contribute to a data blog. Fact Tank, in part, is meant to take advantage of that situation and give them a platform where they can write freely, with a higher metabolism. So, in that sense, we still use the same manpower, with one exception - we have also hired a new blogger specifically to contribute to Fact Tank.

Many of the people here welcome the opportunity to write more frequently, keeping pace with current events and addressing the public directly. [...] For instance, after the riots recently broke in Brazil, one of our researches went back to look at a research we conducted in May, polling citizens’ opinions about their countries’ state institutions. The researcher, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, extracted from the poll the data concerning Brazil and was able to do a blog post about it." 

Which of the Center’s research makes it to Fact Tank?

"This decision is taken at an editorial level. Paul Taylor, the executive vice-president and director, and Sara Goo, the senior digital director (both of whom come from the Washington Post), are the ones making the call. They meet regularly and decide what to do. To a great extent, this is also a matter of practicality, depending on who is available to produce an item."

How is the platform financed?

"We are a non-profit organisation - we get our funds from the Pew Charity Trust. We don’t run advertisement and everything we do is open to public access. Therefore, Fact Tank operates with our existing resources. This works perfectly, since our existing team of in-house journalists are excited to have a new outlet for their work and their thoughts."

What has been your impression with Fact Tank so far?

"We are still getting our sea legs, if I may say. We have a good number of experienced and qualified journalists, but they are not accustomed to the demands of real-time publication. We also give priority to fact checking, which slows down our process. We are still learning how to deal with that."

What are your hopes for the future of the platform?

"We would like to create a space that can both provide engaging presentations of data, and also look for inspiration at other sites that do a similar job. We see in our work that a well-designed interactive work can have ten times the effect of a well-written report. We want to use this in our efforts to inform the public and different decision-making processes."

Asked what would he wish for when it comes to Fact Tank’s future, Murray responded: “More graphic artists. We have a small team now, but we look forward to expanding that.” A quick look at the Center’s data journalism articles reveals indeed that the infographics remain, for the time being, rather basic. No doubt, as the think tank’s team of graphic designers grows, we can expect to see more exciting visual presentations of the data on the platform.