Award-worthy data journalism

Conversations with Data: #20

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With the journalism awards season well truly underway, this week’s edition of Conversations with Data looks at the crucial question: ‘What makes data journalism award-worthy?’

Could it be the use of strikingly beautiful data viz? Or hard-hitting investigative insights? Or perhaps it’s neither of these. Read on for insights from past awardees, circuit observers, and competition insiders so you too can experience the honour, the prestige, and the glory!

What the awardees said

Taking in a Philip Meyer Award and also recognised as a finalist in the Online Journalism Award, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s ongoing series Toxic City suggests that impact could be a factor. Wendy Ruderman, from the investigation, told us more:

“The series examines how environmental hazards in Philadelphia public schools make children sick and deprive them of healthy spaces to learn and thrive. We started the project in early fall 2017 by asking ourselves, ‘What data would be worth getting?’ and then, ‘How do we get that data?’ We wanted to empower parents with information about physical conditions in their child’s school,” she said.

The team spent seven months training teachers to take water samples in their schools to test for mould, asbestos, lead paint and lead. Using nearly 190 samples from 19 elementary schools, the tests exposed millions of cancer-causing asbestos fibres, and lead dust, at hazardous levels.

“The series harnessed data, science, human sources, medical records and the voices of children and parents impacted by health hazards in their neighbourhood schools. The result was a project that resonated with readers and spurred state and local leaders to take action.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the recently-announced winners of the World Data Visualisation Prize spoke about the importance of balancing a story’s elements. From the firm Interacta, Nikita Rokotyan shared their recipe for success:

“We think it's all about finding a balance between data, visual design, and story. Such balance actually doesn't exists because every reader perceives visualisations differently through their own prism of past experiences. But what you can do -- if you're working on an interactive piece -- is to let users to go deeper into data if they feel like exploring it and come to their own conclusions as well.”

Their winning visual is a perfect example of this approach. Using an artificial intelligence technique called t-SNE, they created a new world map, where different countries are clustered by similar scores on various indicators. The project is interactive and users can explore the map through over 30 metrics.


Image: Interacta.

What the observers said

When we spoke to journalists and researchers who follow the circuit, there was one key award-worthy factor: telling important stories well.

Marie-Louise Timcke, Head of the Interactive Team at Leitung Funke Interaktiv, said that “the best data journalism projects are those that approach a relevant topic with a different, unexpected twist. It doesn't have to be anything big, complicated, or time-consuming to research and implement. It's the small but ingenious ideas.”

As an example of this approach, she pointed to the New York Times’ piece How much hotter is your hometown than when you were born. By breaking the complex issue of climate change down to the individual, it leaves “goose bumps on the user with just a very simple line chart”.


Image: New York Times.

And these thoughts are backed up by research from Bahareh Heravi and Adeboyega Ojo at the University College Dublin.

“A majority (73%) of winning data journalism projects between 2013 and 2016 appear to aim to ‘inform’ the audience. This is followed by stories that aim to ‘persuade’ the reader (41%) and ‘explain’ something to the reader (39%). Stories with the aim of ‘entertainment’ had the lowest number in DJA winning stories in this period, with only 2% the winning stories,” explained Bahareh.

Like the team from Interacta, their research also highlighted the popularity of interactivity amongst judges.

“...nearly 60% of the winning stories between 2013 – 2016 had interactive visualisations, and in 27% they had search, filter or selection options. Projects with only static elements formed around only 10% of the winning stories between 2013 to 2016. In 2017, however, we saw a surge in winning stories with only static elements, forming a third of all winning cases. This may be due to the increasing popularity of tools and libraries such as ggplot2.”

Another analysis, conducted by Alice Corona of Batjo, again underscored the importance of quality journalism and stories, above all other criteria. Her tip: "If you have a good story, don't chicken out just because you think you don't have a fancy enough interactive viz to go with it. It's, first of all, a journalism award”.


Image: Distribution of dataviz subjects of the 302 data visualisations that Alice analysed.

To sum up, Wiebke Loosen, who authored a Data Journalism Handbook 2 chapter on the subject, provided these top components of an award-worthy story:

  • it critically investigates socially relevant issues
  • it makes the data society understandable and criticisable by its own means
  • it actively tries to uncover data manipulation and data abuse
  • it keeps in mind, explains, and emphasises the character of data as ‘human artifacts‘ that are by no means self-evident collections of facts, but often collected in relation to very particular conditions and objectives.

What the insiders said

In the end, it’s always up to what the judges think -- although it seems that they too value the features we’ve just discussed. According to David McKie, from the 2018 Philip Meyer Award panel, the strength of a project is driven by the quality of the data and the stories behind the numbers.

“The quality of the data -- obtained through freedom-of-information battles, scraping websites, the use of social research methods, or all of the above -- sets everything in motion. The findings become compelling, important, potentially game-changing. The people whose stories are told humanise the findings, making them relatable. These were the common characteristics of the finalists, and many of those that were also in the running for the 2018 Philip Meyer Award. In short, award-worthy, data journalism projects use data to tell stories that citizens and lawmakers need to know.”

Simon Rogers, Director of the Data Journalism Awards, put it simply: it’s about “tackling the huge issues of the news today and changing how we see the world”.

And even if you don’t win, Christopher Persaud of the Sunshine State Awards, reminded us that there’s still value in entering.

“...awards give data reporters something to work towards, plus shows them by example how they can do better,” he said.

Our next conversation

If there’s one thing journalists are united in the fight against, it’s disinformation. At the European Journalism Centre, we’re proud to support the team at First Draft in combating mis- and disinformation through fieldwork, research, and education. To this end, they’ll be holding three invite-only summits in March, offering our readers (that’s you!) the exclusive opportunity to attend. Register here for free.

Can’t attend? No problems. We’ll be having the team with us for an AMA on data and disinformation in our next edition.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what who you’d like us to feature in our future editions.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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