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

The 7 habits of successful journalists: how do you develop scepticism?

In a previous post I outlined seven habits often associated with good journalism that are often talked about (wrongly) as ‘innate’ or ‘unteachable’. In this second post I look at scepticism: why it’s so important in journalism, and how it can be taught.

On its own the first habit of a successful journalist — curiosity — can only take us so far as a journalist: as we ask questions of our sources, we cannot merely report what people tell us — especially if two different sources say contrasting things.

Scepticism is important in journalism because it moves us from merely repeating what people have said, to establishing the factual basis that puts that information into context — whether those facts support or contradict those statements, or do not exist at all.

This has become particularly important in a modern information age when most public bodies can communicate with the public directly, without that accountability.

Scepticism as the voice of the audience

If curiosity represents the journalist acting as the eyes and ears of the audience, scepticism is where we act as the mouth of the audience.

More specifically, it is the way in which we give a voice to an audience which isn’t able to ask questions itself. Continue reading

The 7 habits of successful journalists — starting with curiosity

Curiosity scepticism persistence empathy creativity discipline passion

Are good reporters born — or made? Can you teach the curiosity that all good journalists possess? The persistence of the best reporting? The creativity of the most compelling stories? Every so often I hear a journalist say that you can’t — that those quaities are ‘innate’ or “can’t be taught”…

This line of thought — a line which lacks the very curiosity and persistence that journalists are expected to aspire to — bothers me.

And it’s bothered me for some time.

Over the last year I’ve been thinking about these qualities a lot, what they might be, how educators teach them, and how they could be developed in journalism students and trainees more explicitly.

Today, then, I’m publishing the first in a series of posts exploring 7 habits that we often attribute to the best journalism, and to good journalists — and identifying ways that those habits are and can be encouraged and developed.

The 7 qualities are: Continue reading

Ergodic education: how to avoid “shovelware” when we teach online

A classroom and a zoom call

Death by Zoom: are we mistakenly trying to recreate the classroom instead of making something web-native?

A few weeks ago I was invited to talk at an online mini-fest about a ‘big idea’ for the future of online learning. I decided to talk about what I called ergodic education — how concepts from interactivity can be used to inform teaching as learners move online. In this post I talk about some of those concepts and how they can be adopted to a lockdown-era classroom.
Continue reading

3 more angles most often used to tell data stories: explorers, relationships and bad data stories

Scale: 'This is how big an issue is' Change/stasis: ‘This is going up/down/not improving’ Outliers/ranking: ‘The best/worst/where we rank’ Variation: "Postcode lotteries" and distributions Exploration: Tools, simulators, analysis — and art Relationships/debunking: ‘Things are connected’ — or not, networks and flows of power and money Problems & solutions: ‘Concerns over data’, ‘Missing data’, ‘Get the data’

Yesterday I wrote the first of a two-part series on the 7 angles that are used to tell stories about data. In this second part I finish the list with a look at the three less common angles: those stories focusing on relationships; angles that focus on the data itself — its absence, poor quality, or existence — and exploratory stories that often provide an opportunity to get to the grips with the data itself.

Data angle 5. ‘Explore’: tools, interactivity — and art

How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk

This New York Times interactive became one of their most-read stories of all time

Exploratory angles are largely web-native. Its selling point is often characterised by a ‘call to action’  like “explore”, “play” or “Take the quiz”. Alternatively, it might sell the comprehensiveness of the analysis in the way that it is “Mapped” or documents “Every X that ever happened”, or simply answers the question “Who/how/where”. Continue reading

Here are the angles journalists use most often to tell the stories in data

7 common angles for data storie: scale, change, ranking, variation, explore, relationships, bad data, leads

In my data journalism teaching and training I often talk about common types of stories that can be found in datasets — so I thought I would take 100 pieces of data journalism and analyse them to see if it was possible to identify how often each of those story angles is used.

I found that there are actually broadly seven core data story angles. Many incorporate other angles as secondary dimensions in the storytelling (a change story might go on to talk about the scale of something, for example), but all the data journalism stories I looked at took one of these as its lead.

In the first of a two-part series I walk through how the four most common angles can help you identify story ideas, the variety of their execution, and the considerations to bear in mind. Continue reading

A journalist’s introduction to network analysis

David Cameron's network

Channel 4’s Who Knows Who project was an early adopter of network analysis

Network analysis offers enormous potential for journalism: able to tease out controversial connections and curious clusters, and to make visible that which we could not otherwise see, it’s also often about relationships and power.

It is both a data journalism technique and an open source intelligence (OSINT) technique — and yet it is relatively underused in both, most likely because the tools to do network analysis have only become accessible in the last few years.

Here, then, is an introduction for journalists, adapted from my lectures on the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University.

How network analysis is used in journalism

Network analysis is, simply, a way of making relationships between entities visible.

It might be used in journalism to generate or check leads (by showing unusual patterns), to communicate the story itself (i.e. to show those patterns to others) or to allow readers to explore a system. Continue reading

How Wayback Machine and a sitemap file was used to factcheck Dominic Cummmings

Before and after images of Cummings' blog post text

Among the many claims made by UK Government adviser Dominic Cummings in his press conference on Monday was one that could be easily checked.

As evidence that he took the threat from coronavirus seriously he said that he’d written about the danger of coronaviruses last year.

“For years I’ve warned of the dangers of pandemics. Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

Before the press conference was over, that claim had already been proven to be false, thanks to some underused journalistic tools of verification: the Wayback Machine and sitemap.

Here’s how it was done — and how journalists can use the same tools in their work, whether it’s to verify a claim made about the past, a claim about what was not said in the past, or to uncover details that may have been unwittingly revealed in earlier versions of webpages. Continue reading

Coronavirus: 3 ways journalists need to get to grips with uncertainty during the pandemic

R number ranges in different UK regions

R number ranges shown by the FT

Journalism doesn’t like uncertainty: editors are trained to cut out vagueness and journalists taught to be as concrete as possible in their reporting. In most cases it compels reporters to ensure they have a firm grip on the details and are confident in the story they are reporting.

But with coronavirus, this discipline becomes a systemic blind spot.

From prevalence to testing, and from deaths to infection rates, the story of this pandemic is full of uncertainty. Here, then, are 3 ways that journalists need to understand — and better communicate — the things that we don’t know, and won’t know, about it. Continue reading