FAQ: Data journalism, laziness, information overload & localism

I seem to have lost the habit of publishing interview responses here under the FAQ category for the past year, but the following questions from a journalist, and my answers, were worth publishing in case anyone has the same questions:

Simon Rogers, Editor of the Datablog, said that he thinks in the future simply publishing the raw data will become acceptable journalism. Do you not think that an approach like this to raw data is lazy journalism? And equally, do you think that would be a type of journalism that the public will really be able to engage with?

It’s not lazy at all, and to think otherwise is pure journalistic egoism. We have a tendency to undervalue things because we haven’t invested our own effort into it, but the value lies in its usefulness, not in the effort. Increasingly I think being a journalist will be as much about making journalism possible for other people as it will be about creating that journalism yourself. You have to ask yourself: do I just want to write pretty stories, or allow people to hold power to account?

In a world where we can access information directly I think it’s a central function of journalists to make important information findable. The first level of that is to publish raw data.

It’s interesting to see that this seems to be a key principle for hyperlocal bloggers – making civic information findable.

The second level – if you have the time and resources – is then to analyse that raw data and pull stories out of it. But ultimately there will always be other ‘stories’ in the information that people want to find for themselves, which may be too specific to be of interest to the journalist or publisher.

The third level – which really requires a lot of investment – is to create tools that make it easier for the user to find what they want, to make it easier to understand (e.g. through visualisation), and to share it with others.

Do you think that alot of the information can be quite overwhelming and sometimes not go anywhere?

Of course, but that isn’t a reason for not publishing the information. It’s natural that when the information is released some of it will attract more attention than other parts – but also, if other questions come up in future there is a dataset that people can go back and interrogate even if they didn’t at the time.

At the moment we have a lot of data but very few tools to interrogate that. That’s going to change – just in the last 6 months we’ve seen some fantastic new tools for filtering data, and the momentum is building in this area. It’s notable how many of the bids for the Knight News Challenge were data-related.

Additionally, do you tihnk The Guardian continue to pursue stories from the masses of data as consistently as they have done in previous years?

Yes, I think the Guardian has now built a reputation in this field and will want to maintain that, not to mention the fact that its reputation means it will attract more and more data-related stories, and benefit from the work of people outside the organisation who are interrogating data. They’ll also get better and better as they learn from experience.

And why do you think that smaller news resources struggle to use this sort of information as a source for news?

Partly because data has historically been more national than local. Even now I get frustrated when I find a dataset but then discover it’s only broken down into England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. But we are now finally getting more and more local data.

Also, at a local level journalists tend to be less specialised. On a national you might have a health or environment or financial reporter who is more used to dealing with figures and data. On a local newspaper that’s less likely – and there’s a high turnover of staff because of the low wages.

5 thoughts on “FAQ: Data journalism, laziness, information overload & localism

  1. Peter Demain

    I think Simon Rogers oversimplifies things.

    ‘Raw data’ is not often in charts; it’s figures. From what I’ve seen it’s standard practice to illustrate something in graphs, pie chart or whatever.

    Yet Visualization in itself is a compromise from the ‘raw data’ ideal. Not just aesthetically either. Given the amount of time a pie chart takes to intepret versus numbers columns it won’t necessarily add up to quality. The same old problem of slant and presentation would remain despite the veneer of honesty data by itself might appear to have. Lies, damn lies and statistics.

    Another thing is interest – lots of people in the service economy get stats galore in offices. These tend to have a far narrower focus than the smorgasbord of stuff journalism encompasses. Yet I somehow can’t see people picking up a paper to see a title followed by spreadsheet and graphs.

    Finest journalism I’ve read tells a story. It’s compelling, and the best, most world-changing stuff holds its own for longer as a result. Kim Philby, Watergate and in particular Thalidomide. The intrigue as expressed in the writing back then was what got people reading – were you to have a paper with ‘Government Thalidomide data proves shocking’ on it and just charts/numbers beneath would it not have resonated less for the reader?

    It’s different than melding entertainment with news, as that’s a recipe for disaster which can be abundantly observed. But the extreme of pure data does take the palatable and emotional out of news, which I believe is needed given some of what’s covered. Even televised news I watch – I remember imagery and salient speech far better than a graph with percentiles or line gradients about the economy or whatever. Might just be my nutcase self, but I do believe others are the same.

    Going to extremes tends not to turn out favourable with any appreciable frequency. Not to mention diverse markets who consume news. The FT reading financier is fewer in number than those who follow sports commentary or showbusiness. Outright telling people what to think or overtly entertaining with news outside of the comedic was bad for journalism, but so too is presenting bland data on its own with most subject.

    Back in the old days in Liverpool the Echo was a broadsheet. It remarketed itself in tabloid form with the advent of literacy as a preserve of all classes. This proved wise – whilst circulations plummet now with that paper to some extent treating readers with patronizing assertions regards (eg) intuition I can’t see how this hypothesis translates to readers.

    Just isn’t something I find people would seek out to spontaniously sound off about. How on Earth can people change so starkly and fast from the status quo?

    Would be good if Simon could pop along to address the above.

    Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

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  3. Simon Rogers

    Well, what I said was slightly oversimplified too. I do think that sometimes simply publishing a dataset is a journalistic task in itself – if it says something interesting then those numbers can sometimes tell the story. I also think that in this closed society simply locating the best piece of data is a pure reporting job – just that instead of words, we’re looking for numbers.

    But that’s not true in every case – or indeed most cases. The reason the three Wikileaks releases (Afghanistan, Iraq and the cables) have been so compelling is actually the combination of traditional journalistic skills allied with datajournalism. Putting Declan Walsh together with the results that we can get from the raw info is a fantastic combination and I think makes our content deeper and more compelling.

    My point is more that this isn’t rocket science – it’s just a tool to an end. 15 years ago, many journalists didn’t have the internet on their office machines. Now can you imagine a single reporter who doesn’t browse every day? Using a spreadsheet will become like that for reporters – just part of the job.

    I also think that adding visualisations to stories makes them more likely to be read. I think the statistics bear this out – the Datablog posts we add graphics and interactive features to attract readers to stay on the pages for a lot longer than those without.

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