Data Journalism: From stats to stories

Though journalists have always used data, its use was limited to business and investigative reporting. But with the increase in volume and ease of accessibility, data journalism is now mainstream.
Data Journalism: From stats to stories
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In October 2018, a Lion Air flight with 189 people on board crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Jakarta. Within 24 hours, the Reuters graphics desk pieced together flight tracking data to publish a thorough, visual explanation of exactly what happened.

While news was still unfolding, a Reuters Graphics report gave an in-depth look into the event using flight tracking data (Flightradar24) and accident data (Boeing).

Rather than just mapping the route of the crashed aircraft, the report utilized data and created visualizations on the aircraft’s history, other commercial aircraft accidents in the last 10 years, etc.

As a result, the report brought to light some fascinating patterns and insights on the issue of aircraft accidents.

Accidents during approach and landing are more common.
Accidents during approach and landing are more common.Reuters Graphics

We live in a digital world now.

Here, anything can and most often is, described with numbers.

This leads to collections of large volumes of data which can be analyzed by journalists to produce insightful stories.

What is Data Journalism?

Data Journalism could be defined as journalism that uses technology to access, analyse and extract stories from data and then tell the people compelling stories about what the data represents.

Big data is changing journalism and the way reporters work. Journalists today are shifting their focus from being the first person on the scene to being the one who provides context to a seemingly isolated event. With the help of data, they aim to explain what an event really means in the larger scheme of things.

Hate Crime Watch (FactChecker) is a database of religious-bias-motivated hate crimes in India. The project tracks and analyzes such crimes since 2009. The project showed that what have been portrayed as “stray incidents” by the government, are actually incidents of religion-based violence. It presents and explains patterns of attacks based on geography, ruling government, religious groups targeted, etc. The project, thus, helps public better understand the disturbing trend of hate crime incidents and hopes to drive the government to draft policies accordingly.

HateCrimeWatch: A database of hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2018, based on religious identity, categorised by intent, location, political party in power and identity
HateCrimeWatch: A database of hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2018, based on religious identity, categorised by intent, location, political party in power and identityFactCheck India

Low data literacy rates in journalists

From businesses, organizations, government institutions, and private citizens online now produce a vast amount of data every day. Some of that data, like government data and public records, is available to reporters.

Unfortunately, most journalists are not equipped to scour through and analyze big data. Consequently, they are unable to effectively use data to discover patterns and add big data elements to their stories.

Reporters need to be trained in skills involving data scraping and data visualization. They should be aware of where and how they can access important databases. Training in data-related skills will also help them cross-check any claims made by governments and corporations.

For example, if the government makes a claim about the growing employment rates, journalists adept at accessing and parsing data will be able to analyze the data themselves and call out any discrepancies.

If we want to make the case that data is good for democracy, it can’t only be good for democracy for IT people and tech people. It’s something all of us should be able to use and have access to as a common resource or common language.

Catherine D'Ignazio, Scholar (Data literacy and visualization)

Becoming a data journalist

From political analysts to business reporters, anyone can be a data journalist no matter what their background is. All you need is editorial judgement and a keen interest in learning and using basic data skills.

1. Collection

You can start by looking up and maintaining data resources. Today, there is a huge volume of data available for inspection. The Open Data Movement across the globe focuses on improving data accessibility. With the continuous release of newsworthy data, tracing data sets released by businesses and other institutions becomes easier.

But despite being able to access data, you might encounter some difficulties while digging through it. For instance, Government data can be long winding and too messy to comprehend.

2. Organizing

You can enroll in online courses and learn skills like data cleaning and programming. is one such initiative created by the European Journalism Centre. They provide data journalists (beginners and experts) with free resources, materials, online video courses and community forums.

After successfully undertaking basic data journalism courses, you can put your data skills to practice. Compile data sets and organize them using various tools at your disposal. The data can be a basic spreadsheet or a log of phone calls, or a county's employment data.

Tools like Excel and OpenRefine help you in cleaning up messy data and transforms them into different formats for wider scope of usage. Well-organized data helps you scour them minutely and accurately. While analyzing data, look out for anomalies and patterns that can act as leads.

3. Presentation

Based on your initial findings, start asking questions. Just shedding light on data is not sufficient. You need to implement your storytelling skills to build a strong position which is supported by data.

Big data can help journalists turn abstract theories and hunches into tangible reports. Steve Doig’s Pulitzer prize winning story that analyzed damage patterns from Hurricane Andrew is a great example. He joined two different data sets: one mapping the level of destruction caused by the hurricane, and one showing wind speeds. This allowed him to pinpoint areas where weakened building codes and poor construction practices contributed to the impact of the disaster.

As a result, data-driven stories help the public understand complicated issues and offers a future perspective. They can help put things into perspective for everyone to see and offer possible solutions to problems.

Once your data-driven story is ironclad, data visualization tools can be used to present it in a visually-appealing format. A well-designed infographic cuts through the clutter of a complex story and gets right to the point. It explains the implications of data sets

Big data, big impact

With the recent proliferation of fake news across the globe, people are looking for reliable information. Articles anchored by credible data sources are trustworthy sources of information for the public.

Nick Routley, Director and Data Journalist at Visual Capitalist

Major news organizations have realized the potential of big data. The Guardian has an entire section on their website focused on big data stories. IndiaSpend is a data journalism initiative which analyzes public policy around the Indian economy, education and healthcare.

Simple retelling of current events doesn't cut it anymore. Readers are looking for more context and clarity and it is the duty of journalists today to deliver thorough, data-driven interpretations.

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