Why Journalists Should Use Data

Written by: Mirko Lorenz

Journalism is under siege. In the past we, as an industry, relied on being the only ones operating a technology to multiply and distribute what had happened over night. The printing press served as a gateway, if anybody wanted reach the people of a city or region the next morning, they would turn to newspapers. This is over.

Today news stories are flowing in as they happen, from multiple sources, eye-witnesses, blogs and what has happened is filtered through a vast network of social connections, being ranked, commented and more often than not: ignored.

This is why data journalism is so important. Gathering, filtering and visualizing what is happening beyond what the eye can see has a growing value. The orange juice you drink in the morning, the coffee you brew — in today’s global economy there are invisible connections between these products, other people and you. The language of this network is data: little points of information that are often not relevant in a single instance, but massively important when viewed from the right angle.

Right now, a few pioneering journalists already demonstrate how data can be used to create deeper insights into what is happening around us and how it might affect us.

Data analysis can reveal “a story’s shape” (Sarah Cohen), or provides us with a “new camera” (David McCandless). Using data the job of journalists shifts its main focus from being the first ones to report to being the ones telling us what a certain development might actually mean. The range of topics can be far and wide. The next financial crisis that is in the making. The economics behind the products we use. The misuse of funds or political blunders, presented in a compelling data visualization that leaves little room to argue with it.

This is why journalists should see data as an opportunity. They can, for example, reveal how some abstract threat such as unemployment affects people based on their age, gender, education. Using data transforms something abstract into something everyone can understand and relate to.

They can create personalized calculators to help people to make decisions, be this buying a car, a house, deciding on an education or professional path in life or doing a hard check on costs to keep out of debt.

They can analyze the dynamics of a complex situation like riots or political debates, show the fallacies and help everyone to see possible solutions to complex problems.

Becoming knowledgeable in searching, cleaning, and visualizing data is transformative for the profession of information gathering, too. Journalists who master this will experience that building articles on facts and insights is a relief. Less guessing, less looking for quotes — instead, a journalist can build a strong position supported by data and this can affect the role of journalism greatly.

Additionally, getting into data journalism offers a future perspective. Today, when newsrooms cut down, most journalists hope to switch to public relations. Data journalists or data scientists though are already a sought-after group of employees, not only in the media. Companies and institutions around the world are looking for “sensemakers” and professionals, who know how to dig through data and transform it into something tangible.

There is a promise in data and this is what excites newsrooms, making them look for a new type of reporter. For freelancers proficiency with data provides a route to new offerings and stable pay, too. Look at it this way: instead of hiring journalists to quickly fill pages and websites with low value content the use of data could create demand for interactive packages, where spending a week on solving one question is the only way to do it. This is a welcome change in many parts of the media.

There is one barrier keeping journalists from using this potential: training in order to learn how to work with data through all the steps from a first question to a big data-driven scoop.

Working with data is like stepping into vast, unknown territory. At first look, raw data is puzzling to the eyes and to the mind. Data as such is unwieldy. It is quite hard to shape it correctly for visualization. It needs experienced journalists, who have the stamina to look at often confusing, often boring raw data and “see” the hidden stories in there.

Figure 4. European Journalism Centre Survey on Training Needs
Figure 4. European Journalism Centre Survey on Training Needs

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