Category Archives: faq

FAQ: a review of 2012 with Data Driven

The Data Driven Journalism website asked me a few questions as part of their end-of-2012 roundup. You can find the article there, but for the sake of archiving, my responses are copied below (without the helpful pictures they added):

What do you do?

I’m a data journalism trainer and Iecturer. I run the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University and am a visiting professor in online journalism at City University London. I’m also the author of Scraping for Journalists.

What was your biggest data driven achievement this year?

An investigation into the allocation of Olympic torchbearer places. The investigation came about as a result of scraping details on torchbearers from the official website. But it was also a great example of collaboration between non-journalists and journalists, as well as a number of techniques outside of core data journalism.

The investigation led to questions in Parliament and international media coverage. In the final week of the Olympic torch relay we published a short ebook about the affair, with all proceeds going to the Brittle Bone Society.

What was your favourite data journalism project this year and why?

I really liked, which is attempting to map land ownership – it’s highlighting a global trend of companies buying up land in Africa which would be easy to overlook by journalists. The New York Times’s multimedia treatment of performance data in three Olympic events across over a century was really well done. And I’m always looking at how data journalism can be used in softer news, where Anna Powell-Smith’s What Size Am I? is a great example of fashion/consumer data journalism.

For sheer significance I can’t avoid mentioning Nate Silver’s work on the US election – that was a watershed for data journalism and an embarrassment for many political pundits.

More broadly – what excites you in this field at the moment? Any interesting developments that you’d like to mention?

There’s a lot of consolidation at the moment, so less of the spectacular developments – but I am excited at how data journalism is being taken on by a wider range of companies. This year I’ve spent a lot more time training staff at consumer magazine publishers, for example.

I’m also excited about some of the new journalism startups based on public data like Rafat Ali’s Skift. In terms of tools, it’s great to see network analysis added to Fusion Tables, and the Knight Digital Media Center’s freeDive makes it very easy indeed to create a public database from a Google Doc.

What about disappointments?

I am constantly disappointed by publishers who say they don’t have the resources to do data journalism. That shows a real lack of imagination and understanding of what data journalism really is. It doesn’t have to be a spectacular interactive data visualisation – it can simply be about getting to better stories more quickly, accurately and more deeply through a few basic techniques.

Any predictions about what the future holds for data journalism in 2013?

I’ve just been training someone from Chile so I’m hoping to see more data journalism there!

Anything else you’d like to share with everyone?

Happy Christmas!


FAQ: Social media and journalism: dehumanising?

As part of my semi-regular FAQ series, here are some answers to a series of questions posed by someone as part of their research.

To what extent do you believe social media has removed the barrier between journalists and the public?

Significantly. Journalists are trained to find regular sources of news – that mostly means formal organisations such as government bodies, unions, press officers, and a few community figures such as the local vicar, postmaster etc. Continue reading

FAQ: Blogging inspirations, tools and trends

As part of the ongoing series of questions answered in public, here are another bunch:

1) What inspired you to become a blogger? Have you ever found it difficult to keep up regular posts/ stay dedicated to the same topic area?

As someone teaching online journalism, I felt I should be exploring the medium myself. What inspired me to continue, however, was the community I found along the way.

Yes, I sometimes find it difficult to post, but the great thing about blogging is that you have no deadlines to hit or boss to please, so if I can’t post for a while, I don’t – but as long as I have something to share, I can. Continue reading

FAQ: Trusting ‘the blogosphere’

Note: for those coming from Poynter’s summary of part of this post, the phrase ‘don’t have to be trained’ has an ambiguity that could be misunderstood. I’ve expanded on the relevant section to clarify.

Another set of answers to another set of questions (FAQs). These are posed by a UK university student:

How would you define the blogosphere?

The blogosphere is, technically, all blogs – but those don’t often have much connection to each other. I think it’s better to talk of many ‘blogospheres’ around different topics, e.g. the political blogosphere and so on. Continue reading

FAQ: Online journalism ethics, accuracy, transparency and objectivity

Answers to another set of questions around ethics and online journalism, posed by a UK student, and reproduced here as part of the FAQ series:

Do you believe online journalism presents new ethical dilemmas and should have standards of its own?

Yes, I think any changing situation – whether technological or cultural – presents new ethical dilemmas.

But should ‘online journalism’ have a separate code? I don’t see how it can. Where would you draw the line when most journalists work online? Ethical standards are relatively platform-agnostic, but journalists do have to revisit those when they’re working in new environments. Continue reading

FAQ: The stream as an interface; starting out in data journalism

Here are the latest answers to some questions – this time relating to these predictions for 2012:

Q: What are the advantages of “stream” as an interface for news website homepages?

The main advantages are that it’s very sticky – users tend to leave streams on in the same way that they leave 24 hour news channels on, or keep checking back to Facebook and Twitter (which have helped popularise the ‘stream’ interface).

If you compare that to the traditional story layout format, where users scan across the page but then leave the site if there’s nothing obviously of interest, you can see the difference.

I think there’s room for both, but if you want to know what’s new since the last time you looked, the stream works very well. And it’s not difficult to combine that with subject or region pages that show the most important news of that day, for example.

I think it can work for every kind of news: the stream says ‘Here’s what’s new’ across all topics; the ‘layout’ says ‘Here’s what we think is important’ – in other words, it performs a more traditional ‘snapshot’ function akin to the daily newspaper layout.

2) What are the skills a reporter should have in order to be a top-notch, first-rate data journalist?

The basic skills are the same as any journalist: a nose for a story, and the ability to communicate that clearly. In data journalism terms that means being able to interrogate data quickly and then focus on the most important facts within it.

That will most likely involve being able to use spreadsheet formulae to work out, for example, the proportion of time or money being spent on something, or to combine different datasets to gain new insights or overcome obstacles put in your way by those publishing the data.

You also need to be able to avoid mistakes by cleaning data, for example (often the same person or organisation will be named differently, for example), and by understanding the context of the data (for example, population size, or methodology used to gather it).

Finally, as I say, you need to be able to communicate the results clearly, which often means pulling back from the data and not trying to use it all in your telling of the story (just as you wouldn’t use every quote you got from a source) but keeping it simple.

FAQ: Niche blogs vs mainstream media outlets

Here’s another collection of questions answered here to avoid duplication. This time from a final year student at UCLAN:

Blogs are often based on niche subject areas and created by individuals from a community. Do you think mainstream media outlets are limited by resources to compete? Or are there signs they are adapting?

I think they are more limited by passion, and by commercial imperatives. Niche blogs tend to be driven by passion initially, and sometimes by the commercial imperative to target those niches, whereas mainstream outlets are built on scale and mass audiences – or affluent audiences who still don’t really qualify as a niche.

They are adapting as the commercial drive changes and advertisers look for measurements of engagement, but it’s hard, as your next question fleshes out…

Communities by nature need conversation, and this often visible online in forums, blog comments etc. Can it be argued niche blogs are better at engaging communities and providing a platform for conversation?

…yes, but more because they often build those communities from the ground up, whereas established media platforms are having to start with a mass audience and carve niches out of those. It’s like trying to hold a community meeting in the middle of a busy high street, compared to doing it in a community centre.

… If so, do you think the success of blogs are as a result of people wanting conversation instead of a ‘lecture from journalists?

Not necessarily – I think blogs succeed (and fail) for all sorts of reasons. One of those is that blogs have made it easier to connect with likeminded people across the platform (in comments, for example, without having to fight through hundreds of comments from idiots), another is the ability for users to input into the journalistic process rather than merely consuming a story, and another is the ability to focus on elements of an issue which may not be accessible enough to justify coverage by a mass audience publication – and I’m sure there are as many other reasons as there are blogs.

Finally, with the emergence of Twitter, along with other methods of contact, are journalists now becoming more involved in conversation with communities of interest or is there still a reluctance from journalists to be involved?

Some recent research in the US suggested that Twitter is still being used overwhelmingly as a broadcast platform by journalists and news brands. But there are also an increasing number of journalists who are using it particularly effectively as a way to talk with users. My own research into blogging suggested a similar effect. So yes, there is reluctance (talking to sources is hard work, after all, whether it’s on Twitter, the phone, or face to face – and for many journalists it’s easier to avoid it) but the culture is changing slowly.