Historical data journalism

Conversations with Data: #19

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History buffs, this one’s for you.

Whether it’s as far back as 1888, or even a hundred years later in 1976, there have always been journalists hard at work using data -- but we so very rarely get to see their work. This edition is about to change that.

To shed light on the work of early data pioneers, we’ve collected four of your favourite examples of data journalism from history.

Starting with our earliest piece, let’s begin our trip through time.

What you liked

1. The Great Storm, 1888

Everett Hayden helped co-found the National Geographic Society and published The Great Storm... in its Magazine's first issue (1888). It contains four weather maps that show isobars, isotherms, and wind direction. The bucketed diverging blue-red colour palette goes from below- to above-freezing. The last two charts show the track of data-recording vessels and a more abstract look at the variation of barometric pressure.


Image: National Geographic.

Hayden's prose elevates this exceptional example of a data story. He teaches readers what they need to know about meteorology to appreciate the Great Storm. He details the impressive data provenance (‘never have the data been so complete and reliable for such a discussion at such an early date’), admits to its limitations (‘be careful and cautious in generalIzing from the data at hand’), and respects the reader's intelligence while easing them into technical terms (isobars and troughs). Hayden, a sea storm expert, makes the storm come alive with salty language: ‘the warfare of the elements so soon to rage with destructive violence’. Over 130 years later, this piece of data journalism is still a model worth studying, and aspiring to.”

-- RJ Andrews, author of Info We Trust: How to Inspire the world with data

2. The Men and Religion Forward Movement, 1913

“My favourite example of historical data journalism probably isn't what you were expecting. It isn't beautiful. It isn't even good data, or good journalism. But this is my point -- in my chapter in the Data Journalism Handbook, I argue that there are emotional and aesthetic meanings to ‘datafied journalism’, feelings that go beyond the provision of meaningful and accurate information. In other words, being immersed in a world of data journalism provides us, as news consumers, with a certain feeling of quantified objectivity that is meant to represent a particular mode of making news and a way of being in the world.”

-- C.W. Anderson, author of [Genealogies of Data Journalism] in the Data Journalism Handbook 2


The Men and Religion Forward Movement, found in Press Messages and Journalism of the Men and Religion Forward Movement (1913).

3. The Economist, 1967

“This map was published in The Economist on December 16, 1967. What I like about the map, despite its obvious shortcomings (pie charts, no scale for the bars, it's black and white), is that it seems the editors took a risk on it: It is big and crucially it comes with an explanation of how to read it next to the legend in the top right corner. This shows that readers at the time weren't expected to immediately ‘get’ the visualisation at first glance. I think we have come a long way in terms of both data visualisation and data literacy since then. The map is a great reminder that we need to be willing to take risks and experiment with new visualisations -- even if we sometimes go wrong, in the long run, that's how we make progress.”

-- Marie Segger, The Economist


The Economist.

4. Mission to Earth: Landsat Views the World, 1976

“Published in 1976, the book documents the first four years of data collected by Landsat. It dates from an era before the world wide web and easy download of digital data, when information was mainly distributed on paper. Over 460 pages long, the book features 400 plates; mostly full Landsat scenes but also mosaics, locator maps, and geological sketches.


Mission to Earth: Landsat Views the World.

At the time of publication, satellite imagery was novel, so there’s a thorough description of the data and a list of applications—ranging from monitoring agriculture and mapping urban sprawl to detecting floods and measuring snow cover. There’s even a little muckraking:

‘Although it had been known that clear-cutting techniques were being applied to the heavily forested regions of Oregon, its widespread use was not fully realised until Landsat 1 produced the dramatic scene shown in Figure 6. In this scene, with volcanic Mount Hood visible in the left-centre and the Columbia River at the top, clear-cut areas are vividly displayed as light patches within the dark red of the forested areas. Imagery such as this can be of considerable value to Federal and State agencies having the responsibility of monitoring and protecting our forest resources.'"

-- Robert Simmon, Planet

Our next conversation

There’s a question that haunts any data journalist submitting their work for an award: ‘What makes a story award-worthy?’

With different judging panels, and all of their subjectivities to account for, it can be quite a challenge to know which story to select. So, to help shed some light on the process, we’ll be sourcing your thoughts on this question in our next edition.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a winning entry, judged on a panel, or simply follow the data journalism award circuit, please share your wisdom.

And 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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