“Systems would go offline for days just to delay the release of data” – Rodrigo Menegat on Covid-19 data journalism in Brazil

In a guest post for OJB, Rodrigo George Willoughby spoke to data journalist Rodrigo Menegat about reporting on Covid-19 in Brazil, managing uncertainty and how data journalism could help debunk misinformation.

At the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in March, data on the disease was in high demand. It required collaboration — something made more difficult with data lacking in quality.

Having spent most of his career covering politics, last year Rodrigo Menegat realised that science data — particularly Covid-19 data — was fast becoming a staple in the newsroom. 

“The first challenge was learning how to cover data which is very different to sport or politics,” he says.

The difficulty was understanding something that, as a country, Brazil was not ready to face.

“One of the main issues is that Brazillian data is insufficient. People were trying to make data as hidden and as unavailable as possible.”

By September he made the decision to leave his newspaper and go freelance.

Rodrigo speaks highly of the work of Nikki Usher. “She said that data journalism allows you to cover other realities.

“You have the far view which is about seeing patterns and connections. Then you have the near view which is how a very complicated issue relates to a specific audience. You can personalise.”

Limited access to Brazilian coronavirus data

With access to data purposefully limited, providing insights and updates was a significant obstacle news outlets in Brazil faced.

Public data was available because of an organisation called Brasil IO. A programmer ran the site with volunteers publishing a database of cases and deaths by the municipalities.

But Rodrigo describes a “political pushback” that meant important portions of information were removed from the website.

But then, he says, the media responded in an “extraordinary” way.

“The newspapers came together and said hey, this is not okay. We, the press, will not allow you to make things less transparent.

“The press felt threatened. Their democratic values threatened. This instinct of collaboration is developing more and the press are still talking about it.”

Debunking and misinformation

coffin being placed in ground

An example of an image being used as misinformation. The claims were that mass Covid-19 graves were being filled with empty coffins. It was debunked by the Comprova coalition. Source: Rodrigo Menegat

In addition to Brazil’s issues with data availability, misinformation is also a problem. Such is the scale of the lack of trust in Brazil that both citizens and journalists doubt even the simplest tweets.

“We need to fight back, and debunking is very important,” says Rodrigo.

“There is a whole infrastructure for misinformation. People are doing this because they get money through advertisements.

“The work of fact-checkers is important. They are mapping where certain pieces are coming from, who are their supporters and advertisers. Misinformation is being structured so we can see how it plays out.”

However, Rodrigo does not see the use of data as the “cure for all diseases.”

“It is not only about data literacy. There is also something that goes even further.

“This is the feeling of belonging to a political party or group that believes in something. I think that is the main issue of misinformation as people are not actually judging the content. Even people with number and news literacy — they fall for it. There is the issue of making people aware of their biases when consuming information, but this is way more complicated to solve.”

Data and uncertainty

Line chart showing case numbers for Sao Paolo going up

This infographic on case numbers was produced by Rodrigo for a media outlet called O Estado de S.Paulo. Data was made available because it was collected by volunteers. Source: Rodrigo Menegat

The data in Brazil comes with a plethora of caveats that need accommodating for in any reporting. Whether in a visualisation or a piece of analysis, the data source and limitations need to be communicated.

The data quality issues lead to uncertainty — and managing it “is very complicated,” says Rodrigo.

“The key thing is trying to make people understand that these numbers are the best thing we have.

“The message here has to be that we are working with the best information we can provide you right now. But, you must be aware that it is not as good as we want it to be.”

During the pandemic, assessing how much you can rely on data has become a major focus of data journalism best practice.

In Brazil the administration not only tries to limit the availability of data — it is also often inaccurate.

Data collection occurs at three main levels: federal, state and city. Data is collected at the city level and passed up. As the data reaches the top, reliability comes into question.

“Every state releases data in a different way,” explains Rodrigo. 

“Especially in the beginning, there were differences between states and the quality of the data that they released.

“For instance, a city that has a very bad [Covid] situation. The numbers would not be reported back to the states. Systems would even go offline for two or three days in a row to delay the release of the data.”

Data journalism can inform the public, and transparency plays a significant role in achieving this.

When there are doubts over governmental information, journalists can shine a spotlight on some of the flaws. It might be highlighting caveats in the footer, or disclaimers, but the challenge is not to “complexify the message.”

“When there is a problem with the system, we need to add context and being transparent about all the data issues is key,” says Rodrigo.

“We try to give as much context as possible by adding extra layers of information. The data is not perfect. The way tests are being rolled out and even death numbers, they are not reliable. So I think you have to keep in mind all the caveats when communicating uncertainty. However, at this point, we cannot afford to complexify the message.”

The growing prominence of data in newsrooms

The need to display case rates, deaths and movement during the pandemic has highlighted just how necessary data is. And this is not likely to change in the short term: it will be years until the long term effects of the virus are identified.

“I hope after Covid-19 people are a little bit more aware of how data has an impact on our world,” Rodrigo says.

“Journalists used to see [data journalists] as the people crunching data in the spreadsheets. Now, everybody is doing a little bit of data journalism because they need to. I cannot think of a single reporter that has covered Covid-19 without using a spreadsheet.

“If you can find a balance between specialising in complex stuff, and the general knowledge of the craft, this would be a really good thing.”

George Willoughby is a student on the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Striking the balance between graphic design and data journalism: “Design is a conversation”

Beirut blast scrollytell

Reuters’ Graphics Team is renowned for creating a myriad of innovative news stories under tight deadlines, from Covid-19 coverage to mapping the movement of shifting smoke from California wildfires. In a guest post for OJB, Hanna Duggal speaks to the team’s Simon Scarr and Marco Hernandez about pushing the boundaries of visual storytelling in the newsroom and the relationship between data and design. 

In a world that has become increasingly data-prolific and hardwired towards visual content, visualisation provides the newsroom with both a way to communicate complex data effectively and to engage audiences.

Data graphics have become more immersive, compelling and revealing, — and for Reuters, an integral part of how stories are told.

“I’m incredibly proud of our breaking news work,” says Simon Scarr, Reuters’ Deputy Head of Graphics. Continue reading

From passion to disillusionment and back again — developing the 7th habit of successful journalists

Most journalists are restless voyeurs who see the warts on the world, the imperfections in people and places. . . . gloom is their game, the spectacle their passion, normality their nemesis.

Image: A-Z Quotes

Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring the habits of successful journalists that are often described as being “innate” or “unteachable”: from curiosity and scepticismpersistence and empathy, to creativity and discipline. In this final post I look at a quality underpinning them all: passion.

Are journalists only ever born with a passion for their craft — or is it something that can be taught?

Of all the seven habits that have been explored in this series, passion is perhaps the one that seems most innate — a quality that you “either have or don’t have”.

Can we teach passion? Well, we can provide the reasons why someone might be passionate about their craft — we can inspire passion and we can create opportunities to experience the things that have stimulated passion in others. Continue reading

Why discipline is one of the 7 habits of successful journalists

"A nose for news, a plausible manner and an ability to write and deliver concise, accurate copy to deadline" - description of the qualities needed by journalists, from Ethics & Journalism by Karen Sanders

 

In a previous post I wrote about the central role of creativity in journalism training — in this penultimate post in a series on the seven habits of successful journalists, I explore how discipline is equally important in directing that creativity towards a professional end — and how it can actually help create the conditions for creativity. You can also read the posts on curiosity, scepticismpersistence and empathy.

While many are attracted to journalism because of its opportunities for creative expression, few are attracted by its various constraints. But it is those particular contraints which make journalism distinctive, and separate from other creative work such as art or fiction.

In fact you might argue that it is constraints that make journalism more similar to creative fields such as design, where the functionality and user of the work must be considered, leading to increasing cross-pollenation between them (e.g. the rise of design thinking in journalism).

These constraints can be broadly classed as aspects of the work that require self-control, or discipline. For example:

  • We must consider the audience in the selection and treatment of stories
  • We must hit regular deadlines
  • We must write within a particular word count or to particular timings
  • We must remain impartial and objective in our reporting (in most genres)

These aspects of discipline are reflected in some of the most common feedback given to trainee journalists: Continue reading

“There are still many questions that are not answered” – Nicolas Kayser-Bril on investigating algorithmic discrimination on Facebook

When deciding who to show an ad to, Facebook relies on gross stereotypes

 

In a special guest post for OJB, Vanessa Fillis speaks to AlgorithmWatch’s Nicolas Kayser-Bril about his work on how online platforms optimise ad delivery, including his recent story on how Facebook draws on gender stereotypes.

Kayser-Bril first became aware of automated discrimination when he read about an experiment done by researchers at North Eastern University in the US. Seeing that the analysis could be replicated in Europe, he decided to take a closer look at Facebook and Google’s distribution systems.

“Automated systems are supposed to bring relevant content to the users,” says Nicolas. “And I use ‘relevant’ because it’s the adjective that Facebook uses — and there is a sense that relevant content is determined based on the actions of the users themselves.”

But in reality, everything Kayser-Bril knows about large scale automated systems like Facebook’s news feed hints that their decisions about what to show to an user is based on many different factors instead. Continue reading

Tim Harford on telling data stories with audio: “You need to keep simplifying”

Economist and podcaster Tim Harford, author of How To Make The World Add Up, spoke to MA Data Journalism students this month. In a guest post for OJB Niels de Hoog rounds up Tim’s tips on creating compelling number-driven stories for radio and podcasts 

Orson Welles famously said that there’s nothing an audience won’t understand, as long as you can get them to be interested.

Listening to Tim Harford’s podcasts it is clear that he has taken this message to heart.

“If you’ve got a hook, a personality, or a question people want answered, that will carry people through a certain degree of complexity that they wouldn’t tolerate if it was reported straight.”

Take More or Less, his podcast about statistics for BBC Radio 4. At first glance it doesn’t offer the easiest subject for an engaging audio story — yet somehow the programme is very entertaining to listen to. Continue reading

Brazilian journalists launch network analysis tool to investigate political relationships

Cruza Grafos

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) has launched an advanced data tool to help journalists research about politicians and companies, reports Beatriz Farrugia

The platform, Cruza Grafos (“Crossing Graphs”), was created by a partnership between Brasil.io and the Google News Initiative

Cruza Grafos (registration required) is an online visual interface where journalists can research political candidates, and relate candidates to companies and entities with an official registration number in Brazil. 

The tool allows journalists to work with huge datasets without any coding.

According to Reinaldo Chaves, Abraji’s project coordinator, many journalists do not know how to code or even how to open a spreadsheet — a situation that makes some investigative projects impossible to happen. 

“We hope the Cruza Grafos makes this kind of investigation easier and democratizes access to huge datasets.”

Continue reading

Here’s how we teach creativity in journalism (and why it’s the 5th habit of successful journalists)

In the fifth in a series of posts on the seven habits of successful journalists, I explore how creativity can be developed in trainee journalists. You can read the posts on curiosity, scepticism, persistence and empathy here.

Describing journalism as a creative profession can cause discomfort for some reporters: we portray journalism as a neutral activity — “Just the facts” — different to fiction or arts that appear to ‘create something from nothing’.

But journalism is absolutely a creative endeavour: we must choose how to tell our stories: where to point the camera (literally or metaphorically), how to frame the shot, where to cut and what to retain and discard, and how to combine the results to tell a story succinctly, accurately and fairly (not always the story we set out to tell).

We must use creativity to solve problems that might prevent us getting the ‘camera’ in that position in the first place, to find the people with newsworthy stories to tell, to adapt when we can’t find the information we want, or it doesn’t say what we expected (in fact, factual storytelling requires an extra level of creativity given that we can only work with the truth).

All of those are creative decisions.

And before all of that, we must come up with ideas for stories too. The journalist who relies entirely on press releases is rightly sneered at: it is a sign of a lack of imagination when a reporter cannot generate their own ideas about where to look for news leads, or how to pursue those. Continue reading

How to develop empathy as a core tool in successful journalism

The Design Thinking Process - empathy is the first stage

Empathy is the first stage of design thinking. Image: Mike Boyson

In the fourth of a series of post on seven habits often associated with good journalism I look at a quality which is much less talked about, and often misunderstood — and why I believe it should be just as central as qualities such as persistence or curiosity.

Empathy — specifically cognitive empathy — is the ability to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes.

It is one of the more underrated qualities of good journalists, perhaps because people often confuse it with sympathy, or with emotional empathy.

The difference is important: it is possible to imagine what it is like to be a particular person (cognitive empathy), including criminals and corrupt officials, without feeling sorry for them (sympathy) or feeling the same way (emotional empathy). Continue reading

Developing persistence and tenacity as a journalist (7 habits of successful journalists part 3)

Apple alone on bare tree. Image by Rodger Evans
Tenacity image by Rodger Evans

In the third of a series of post on seven habits often associated with good journalism I look at how persistence and tenacity can be taught in journalism training — and why it should be.

One of the earliest skills that broadcast journalists learn is how to conduct a vox pop. The vox pop is an attempt to ‘take the pulse’ of the public on a topical issue: the journalist will stand in a busy public place and ask passers-by to share their thoughts on the issue of the day.

The results will typically be used as part of a news package (not, it should be pointed out, as a standalone story), particularly when the news story in question doesn’t have many other interviews or visuals to draw on. Most are quickly forgotten. Continue reading