Journalism with Data - Not Data with Journalism


When starting out in data journalism, there’s often an eye-popping moment when you realise how much data is publicly available, and how powerful the tools are which have been sitting, under-used, on your desktop. 

But that’s not enough. People leave their first data training session excited -  vowing to delve into the data as soon as they can and as often as possible.

Then work gets in the way. Many, probably the majority never get around to it. They forget what they learned, and exploring data gets put back in the “too difficult” or “one day, when I have time” trays.

At the same time, editors, who’ve had little opportunity to see data journalism for themselves, are almost certainly going to associate the word “data” with graphs and statistics. I know from my own experience that editors will tend to steer their online journalists to my courses, neglecting their beat reporters. Or they need help interpreting statistics.

Carts and horses are being put in the wrong order here. “Computer-aided-reporting” doesn’t turn someone into a reporter, any more than handing someone a pen makes them a reporter. The age-old qualities of curiosity, persistence and the ability to tell a story have not gone away just because datasets became available!

Datasets have often been compared to knowledgeable interviewees – ask the right questions, and you will get good answers. Data journalism is not something special  - it’s just what Philip Meyer called "precision journalism".  Great, well investigated stories start with hunches or tips. But now data is a witness. As Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times told the School of Data journalism in Perugia, you just need to look at a data-based story which won a Pulitzer Prize this year.

The Sun-Sentinel reporters used data to prove a case – that off-duty police officers were driving at great speeds on Florida’s toll roads, and getting away with it. They used data showing the times certain cars passed toll booths to calculate and prove what speeds the policemen were driving at (90-130mph if you don’t have time to read the article).

Without data – no story. Without access to data – no story. But this is not a piece about statistics. It needs no graphics, just words. The difference is that just a few years ago the reporters would not have been able to do this story.  The traces we all leave in public places (and the openness of the USA’s FOIA) made this story possible. 

There’s a clear message  – training in computer-assisted reporting, and data alone cannot find or write a story for you. Whether you’re a newbie or a senior editor you need to decide what the story could be –then ask not what you can do with data, ask what data can do for you!  When there’s a story to be told, the technology will help you work out what it is. Not the other way around.