The following Q&A is cross-posted from a post on the Media And Digital Enterprise project of the School of Journalism, Media and Communication at the University of Central Lancashire.
Why do journalists need to learn data skills?
For two key reasons: firstly because information is more widely available, and data skills are one of the few remaining ways for journalists to establish their value in that environment.
And secondly, because data is becoming a very important source of both news and the business case for media organisations.
There has been a massive expansion in data provision in the last decade, which is continuing, and a more recent expansion in data services being sold by media groups, whether that’s selling data to customers and writing reports around it, or needing data to develop apps.
How do you start learning data journalism – it seems very complicated?
Start with one tree, not the whole forest. There are a lot of different ways of doing data journalism, so don’t get overwhelmed or think everyone is doing everything.
Pick a problem you’ll enjoy solving – whether that’s digging into FOI responses on an issue you care about, or public data on a problem that interests you, or creating a compelling visualisation.
Start with a simple story and get the skills needed for that, and go from there. And remember there are plenty of resources online, and communities too.
What’s your favourite data journalism project?
I love projects that test the data itself – because this is information that governments base policies and spending on. On that front, this work by a Mexican blogger into inaccurate reports on drug-related murders always amazes me.
Are there any dangers in data journalism?
Any work of journalism should consider the possible impacts of getting things wrong, and data journalism is no exception. You should never be proud to pick up the phone and speak to an expert in the field you’re looking at, and ask what things to watch out for in official (or commercial) data. Journalists learn by listening to other people, but also being forever sceptical – and these same attitudes should be carried through into working with data.
That said, I don’t think there is any justification for not doing data journalism because of the fear of ‘getting things wrong’. Otherwise we’d have very meek journalism.
How do you keep up to date with all the changes in data journalism – there are always new tools and techniques?
It’s very easy to keep chasing new trends and developments, and feel left out, so don’t put yourself under that pressure. Let the stories dictate what you need to learn, but be aware of what’s out there and what other people are doing.
On that front, subscribing to key feeds on data, data journalism, statistics and visualisation is very helpful. You can find RSS feeds at official sources of data such as the ONS and data.gov.uk, open data initiatives such as Openly Local, Radio 4’s More Or Less and the Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy, and blogs like Flowing Data, Cool Infographics, Eager Eyes, and of course the Guardian’s Datablog.
And you can find these sources and key individuals on Twitter.