Mention the word data and many journalists look like a deer caught in the headlights. We’re word people, we say. Data is for geeks.
That attitude denies your audience information in computer databases that reveal hidden secrets and compelling stories. It can cheat you of the chance to do the most exciting and important work in your career.
“Data journalism matters because we live, increasingly, in a data-driven world,” Casey Frechette, who teaches and researches data journalism at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, told me. “The digitization of society means the emergence of limitless troves of information about how businesses operate; how citizens lead their lives; how governments run. In this sea of data, it’s easy to find ourselves adrift. Data journalists help us make sense of it all.”
STEP INTO DATA JOURNALISM
- Acquire. The Washington Post used newly released tract level census data for an interactive database that shows, by typing in your address, how the racial makeup of your neighborhood has changed since 1990.
- Query. The data journalist probes the stockpile of information, looking for story ideas in spreadsheets or to confirm key facts from traditional sources, like an interview with a public official.
- Analyze. Using basic math and at times advanced statistics, data journalists find averages, establish ratios and crunch percentages. Sophisticated calculations can establish correlations between two variables, such as tenant evictions and rising rents.
- Visualize. “It’s vital.” Frechette says, “to enable people to understand what data means. That’s where visualization comes in, turning statistics into interactive maps and visual worlds.”
Wall Street Journal reporters Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton achieved that with an algorithm to compile lyrics from the Broadway musical hit Hamilton that enabled them to show how Lin-Manuel Miranda tapped rap and hip hop’s imperfect, internal rhymes to make musical history. It’s very cool.
Behind every statistic is a human being. Data journalists who don’t find them fail to connect their findings with their audiences.
Numbers numb, according to psychologist Paul Slovic, who co-authored a 2015 study “The More Who Die, the Less We Care.” It concluded that “as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”
About 700 women die in America every year from pregnancy or delivery complications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it the nation with the highest level of maternal mortality in the developed world.
But how to illustrate the problem when most of these deaths are kept hidden by authorities?
ProPublica and NPR reporters solved it by creating their own dataset of victims by scouring public posts on Twitter and Facebook and the crowdfunding sites, GoFundMe and YouCaring, and then using obituaries and public records to verify the women’s basic information. Working with student journalists from New York University, they reached out to family members.
“Lost Mothers,” the series they produced, features a gallery of 134 women who died giving birth in 2016 and 16 feature obituaries. It’s a heartbreaking example of how data journalists succeed by putting a human face on the numbers their computers churn out.