A journalist’s guide to cognitive bias (and how to avoid it)

For the last few years I’ve been teaching my journalism students a dedicated class on cognitive bias — common ways of thinking that lead journalists (and audiences and sources) to make avoidable mistakes.

Journalism is particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias: we regularly make decisions at speed; we have to deal with too much information — or extract meaning where there isn’t enough of it. Each of those situations makes us vulnerable to poor decision-making — and many of the rules that we adhere to as journalists are designed to address that.

Some cognitive biases — such as groupthink, prejudice, and confirmation bias — are well-known, but many others are not (there are over 180 of them). That includes bias blind spot: the tendency to see how biases affect other people, but not yourself.

So if you were thinking “this doesn’t apply to me”, read on for a guide to some of the cognitive biases likely to affect journalists — from being manipulated by sources to being bad editors of our own copy — and what to do to tackle them. Continue reading

Teaching journalists how to find stories in company accounts: the story treasure hunt

stormtroopers digging up treasure

“These are not the treasures we’re looking for..” image by Stavos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week I shared some of the tips from a class for students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism on  how to find stories in company accounts. It’s a challenging subject to teach — but for the last couple of years I’ve used an approach that seems to work especially well: a story treasure hunt.

Here’s how it works. Continue reading

Here are 9 ways to find stories in company accounts (and only three of them involve numbers)

Found a conflict of interest on the last page

This week I’m teaching students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism  how to find stories in company accounts — so I thought it would be a good time to share just some of the ways that you can use these public documents for story leads and ideas.

Here, then, are just 9 ways to find stories in company accounts — and most of them don’t involve any numbers at all. Continue reading

Empathy as an investigative tool: how to map systems to come up with story ideas

Zooming out of a network map of homelessness

By starting from one person you can start to identify the different parts of the systems that affect your topic — and useful story leads and ideas

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been helping students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism come up with story ideas for specialist reporting and investigations. Part of the process involves an exercise around scoping out a particular subject or system you are interested in — for example, the housing system, or ‘dark kitchens’, the Oscars, or air pollution — and identifying the gaps in your knowledge that can lead to stories.

It’s an exercise where empathy plays a central role.

Here’s how the process works — and why empathy is so important to it. Continue reading

It’s not all about numbers: 6 ways that data can give you a story lead

Changing figures: 'New data says X' Data leads to an interview feature or profile Data leads to reaction/action story Explainers, infographics + 'in numbers': topical context Explorers: interactives, 'mapped', 'you draw it' A story about the lack of data, or concerns over quality

It’s a common misconception of data journalism that the resulting stories will be all about numbers. In fact, the data is often just a stepping stone — it might take you to interviews, or help you find case studies; it might give you the spark for a feature idea without a single number.

Recently I was asked about these alternatives to ‘number stories’ by one of my part time PGCert Data Journalism students — so here are the 6 tips I shared with them:
Continue reading

How to: plan a journalism project that needs data entry

Panorama source: FOI sent to 144 councils

This Panorama investigation involved entering data from 144 FOI responses

Data-driven reporting regularly involves some form of data entry — some of the stories I’ve been involved with, for example, have included entering information from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, compiling data from documents such as companies’ accounts, or working with partners to collect information from a range of sources.

But you’ll rarely hear the challenges of managing these projects discussed in resources on data journalism.

Last week I delivered a session on exactly those challenges to a factchecking team in Albania, so I thought it might be useful to share the tips from that session here.

They include some steps to take to reduce the likelihood of problems arising, while also helping to ensure a data entry project takes as little time as possible. Continue reading

Sigma Awards: new data journalism competition launched

Sigma awards

Data journalists are being invited to enter a new data journalism award, launched to “celebrate the best data journalism around the world [and] to empower, elevate and enlighten the global community of data journalists.”

The Sigma Awards were created by Aron Pilhofer and Reginald Chua, with support from Marianne Bouchart and Google’s Simon Rogers. Bouchart managed the Data Journalism Awards organised by the Global Editors Network, which closed last year.

There are nine awards across six categories:

  • Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)
  • Best visualisation (small and large newsrooms)
  • Innovation (small and large newsrooms)
  • Young journalist
  • Open data; and
  • Best news application

Aside from a trophy, up to two people from each winning project will receive an all-expenses-covered trip to the International Journalism Festival in Perugia on 1–5 April 2020 where the awards will be celebrated.

The organisers hope that winners will “participate in and lead data journalism panels, discussions and workshops” at the festival.

Entries to the competition are open until 3 February 2020 at 11:59 pm ET via an online form.