Category Archives: data journalism

“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.

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

“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

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

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

How to brainstorm COVID-19 data story ideas

Reporting beyond the case numbers: How to brainstorm COVID-19 data story ideas

I’ve written a piece for DataJournalism.com on covering the societal impact of a pandemic with data — it covers:

  • Stories to report in the short term
  • Moving beyond health stories
  • Looking for stories about changing behaviour
  • Thinking creatively about data
  • Stories from historical data
  • Interactivity as a data angle
  • Looking and planning ahead