Q&A: How is data journalism changing the newsroom?

15 Dec 2016

Dr Bahareh Heravi, assistant professor, UCD. Image: Bahareh Heravi

Big data and its analysis is impacting every industry, and the media is no exception. Dr Bahareh Heravi, who is conducting research on data journalism, wants to learn more.

Dr Bahareh Heravi is inviting all Irish journalists, editors and newsrooms to take part in the 2017 Global Data Journalism study.

Though data’s presence and purpose in newsrooms around the world has grown, there is a lack of systematic research in this domain, and a divide between academic and industry practices.

Heravi has lectured on data journalism in several Irish universities and institutions, including NUI Galway and Dublin City University. Currently an assistant professor in information and communication studies at University College Dublin, she answered our questions on data journalism, the study, and how newsrooms stand to benefit from the presence of data scientists.

Inspirefest 2017

What is data journalism?

You will probably find different definitions of data journalism if you look into different books and resources. But, to put it in simple terms, I would say data journalism is about finding stories in data – stories that are of interest to the public – and presenting these stories in the most appropriate manner for public use, and reuse.

‘Like any other journalistic work, data journalism is about the investigation, the story, and communication of that story to the public’

In data journalism, data is your source, and computational methods and applications are the tools to aid you in journalistic work. I think it is important to mention that, like any other journalistic work, data journalism is about the investigation, the story, and communication of that story to the public.

How has technology and digital innovation impacted data journalism?

Even though data journalism has been an emerging area in the past five to 10 years, it is not an entirely new phenomenon. We have had journalists using numbers and statistics for finding and telling stories for many years. They have also used data visualisation, mostly hand-drawn, as a means for communicating stories to the public since the 19th century.

Data journalism is essentially an evolution of what was called computer-assisted reporting (CAR) in the 1960s. CAR was mostly about the use of computers – and specifically, databases – in journalistic work. In the 1990s, a new term was coined for using statistics and social science methods in journalism, which was called precision journalism.

The main force that has given rise to data journalism recently is the amount of data generated these days, accessibility to these data, and also the advancement, accessibility and ease of use of computing powers and computational tools in the past decade. Like many other disciplines that have been subject to change and many advancements as a result of access to this huge volume of data and computational power, journalism also is going through a change and needs to make the best out of these new available sources and tools.

Journalists are used to looking at the world around them, finding interesting stories, or investigating areas of public interest, and telling stories about those in order to inform the public. A good journalist is often a journalist who knows her beat and her sources, and one who can make the best out of those.

‘We are now given access to a whole new and rather unlimited set of sources, and we have the opportunity to find interesting and unique stories in these new sources’

Now that we have petabytes and zettabytes of data being generated on an hourly basis, our sources are altered – or, better say, are enhanced. We are now given access to a whole new and rather unlimited set of sources, and we have the opportunity to find interesting and unique stories in these new sources – the data sources.

Here, it is perhaps worth noting that data is not equal to numbers. This seems to be a common misconception. All the textual data, images, videos and audio that we are generating every day are data too, and mining these data – and, particularly, mining and analysing textual data – can also result in interesting data stories.

Perhaps the main reason behind this misconception is that historically, we have known how to analyse numbers and we have had access to powerful statistical analysis tools for years. The rise of data and information science and access to computational power, however, is now giving us access to text, image and video mining and analysis tools, and even though these are not yet as advanced as numerical analysis tools, I believe, they should not be neglected or forgotten.

What media sources are making great use of data?

American newsrooms are the biggest adopters of data journalism. We see so much excellent data journalism work coming out of organisations such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera America, Chicago Tribune and FiveThirtyEight. This is also evident from the winners of the annual Global Editors Network Data Journalism Award. We actually analysed all their winners in the past years, and found out that the US entries dominate, with just under 50pc of all the winners across the world.

We also see a very strong and engaged data journalism community in the US, one that has even turned into a go-to community for all data journalists across the world. One reason for this could be that CAR has its roots in the US and, therefore, there has been an understanding, an infrastructure and an appetite around the CAR community.

Outside of the US, we see a rather high adoption of data journalism in newsrooms in the UK, and also in Germany, France and Argentina, just to name a few.

‘We see a very strong and engaged data journalism community in the US, one that has even turned into a go-to community for all data journalists across the world’

The Guardian in London is known as the pioneer of data journalism the way we know it, and were the first mainstream news organisation who started a dedicated data blog in 2011. These days, we see great work coming from the UK, particularly from news organisations such as the Financial TimesThe Times and The Sunday Times. In Germany, Berliner Morgenpost, for example, does very interesting data work and, particularly, very nice data visualisations.

Nowadays, many newsrooms across the world have their own dedicated data teams, who mainly focus on data-driven stories within their data team, or act as a data hub for all of the newsrooms. The dynamics between programmers, data analysts and journalists in the newsrooms is changing. In the past, programmers and data scientists would sit in a place separate from the editorial team, probably as part of the IT team. Now, many newsrooms are moving towards having programmers, statisticians and data scientists sitting within the newsrooms and in-between their editorial teams. This move is making a significant shift in the ways in which great data investigations and data journalism projects develop.

In addition to the newsrooms of mainstream news organisations, we are witnessing the rise of not-for-profit organisation and institutions, as well as smaller data journalism agencies and start-ups, who do tremendous data journalism work. One of the best examples of this would be the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, which was the force behind the most well-known and the largest data investigations in history, such as the Panama Papers, and the Swiss Leaks. Other great examples in these categories would be ProPublica in the US and La Nación in Argentina.

We are starting to see very positive efforts to adopt data journalism in Irish newsrooms in the past couple of years. Probably the best example of data journalism in Ireland would be the Detail Data in the North. The Irish Times (through Irish Times Data) and RTÉ (through the RTÉ Investigations Unit) have also made some concerted forays in data journalism and data-driven investigations. The Irish Independent and The Times in Ireland have also been adding data stories to their publications, which shows the interest and appetite in Ireland in this area.

Of course, here I am not attempting to give an exhaustive list of countries and organisations that work on data journalism, and am just naming a few.

What are the opportunities in data journalism?

The main opportunity of course is finding stories that would never have been found if you didn’t have access to the data – if you didn’t look into that data for stories; if you didn’t analyse, mine and scrutinise the data.

Another important game-changer in this area is precision and credibility. If the data is trustworthy, and if the analysis is done well, we are talking about precision when we talk about data journalism. Data investigations are about fact, and not about who said what.

‘We are talking about precision when we talk about data journalism. Data investigations are about fact, and not about who said what’

Data journalism – and its closely related sisters, interactive journalism and computational journalism – also enable new and innovative ways of engaging with the audience, through innovative and gamified data-driven applications.

On the other side of the story, more and better investigative work would often mean more viewers and more clicks for the news organisations. Additionally, some data journalism work, if done systematically, can help by creating affordable news tools and visualisation that can be reused over and over again; for example, when the new release of quarterly data is out.

At the end of the day, it is all about using the news sources that we now have. Why wouldn’t a journalist use a source they are given access to? Investigating, telling stories, bringing precision into our journalistic work, keeping the authorities accountable, and telling more and more informing stories to the public.

And what are the challenges?

Of course, there are a few challenges. The main challenge, I would say, is that most journalists are not equipped with data skills or, in many cases, are rather afraid of data.

Another challenge is resources and finances. One of the biggest barriers to wide adoption of data journalism in newsrooms is resources and money. Given the fact that journalists, who are the primary employees of newsrooms, are not equipped with data skills, newsrooms will need to hire additional data-savvy staff to perform data journalism projects, or, in some cases, invest in training their own newsroom staff.

‘One of the biggest barriers to wide adoption of data journalism in newsrooms is resources and money’

In the cases where the newsrooms do have their own data teams in-house, or have the option to involve their IT or tech team in editorial projects, they still face their own challenges. The main challenge in this case is often associated with the wide gap between journalists and the data teams, who are often a combination of data scientists or analysts, statisticians and programmers. These two groups don’t seem to understand each other’s languages, and often there are serious communication issues between them.

Some news organisations have come up with the solution of hiring an individual who can bridge the gap between these two teams in their newsrooms. Organisations that managed to find such person seem to have made a much more significant advancement in this area, and have produced much higher-quality data journalism work and in a more frequent manner.

What do you hope to learn from the Global Data Journalism survey?

The Global Data Journalism survey is looking into finding out how journalists across the world are using data. We want to understand if and how data plays a role in journalists’ day-to-day workflows, investigations and storytelling practices.

What is the state-of-the-art in this area in news organisations? What skills are required in newsrooms when it comes to data journalism and data-storytelling? How do data teams play a role in modern newsrooms? What are the best practices and what are the challenges?

The study will also look into training needs, to inform training and education of future journalists and data journalists, so that they will be equipped with skills required in this data-intensive society.

Who should participate in this survey and what do they need to do?

This survey is targeted at data journalists and journalists who have some, even if it is very little, interest in or curiosity about data. They do not need to be expert data journalists. We encourage all journalists and editors to take part in this study, even if they have never been involved in any data journalism project to date.

Find out more about the 2017 Global Data Journalism study here, where you can also find a link to participate in the survey.