Category Archives: online journalism

How should journalists report “fiddling the figures” on coronavirus tests?

The BBC’s live stream included an alert that 122,347 tests had been “carried out” yesterday. In fact 40,000 of those had merely been sent out.

When a prominent UK politician announced on live TV that the Government had hit its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April, on the very last day of that month no less, journalists faced a challenge.

Two hours earlier, specialist publication Health Service Journal had revealed that the figures had been fudged: instead of counting the numbers of tests that had been conducted on samples, a source informed them, the Government had quietly changed its own metric so that a test that had been sent out in the post — and not returned or tested — could now be added to the figures.

40,000 tests were then sent out in one day.

By any reasonable understanding, a test sent was not the same thing as a test done, as a raft of jokes — from people saying they had marked their students’ homework by sticking it in the mail, or paid their tax by receiving a letter from the taxman — pointed out.

And yet there was the Government making its claim — at length and without question, on the national broadcaster, and on the websites of national news organisations.

It was 20 minutes before the claim was queried by a reporter, by which time many viewers had switched off.

How journalists responded to this announcement — in different ways, at different times, and in different places — provides a valuable case study for anyone dealing with numbers and the claims that politicans make about them. Continue reading

FAQ: Data journalism and gatekeeping

The latest frequently asked questions post comes in response to a PhD student looking at data journalism and gatekeeping. Here are the questions and my answers:

How do you think the role of journalists has changed during the 21st century, especially with the data explosion and the rise of misinformation and disinformation?

Journalists and news organisations have both been forced to adapt by the increased competition, and the changing nature of the world that we report on (i.e. the fact that it is more data-driven).

Many publishers tell me they want to give their journalists data skills because they feel that they need to ‘up their game’ in order to compete with new entrants to the sector, and to create distinctive content in an environment where celebrities, politicians, sportspeople etc. all publish direct to audiences rather than via media. Continue reading

How to prevent confirmation bias affecting your journalism

If one becomes aware of confirmation bias do they get confirmation bias confirmation bias

A couple weeks ago I published a guide to cognitive biases for journalists. I saved perhaps the biggest one of all — confirmation bias — for a post all of its own. It might be one of the best-known biases, but for that very reason it can be easy to underestimate. Here, then, is what you need to know — and what to do to reduce it.

What is confirmation bias — and how does it affect journalism?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out — or more easily believe or recall — information that confirms our existing beliefs.

It leads us to make judgements that are not based on an equal assessment of all the evidence, but only that evidence we have cherry picked, remembered or attributed more credibility to.

Confirmation bias affects journalists in at least three ways: Continue reading

A journalist’s guide to cognitive bias (and how to avoid it)

For the last few years I’ve been teaching my journalism students a dedicated class on cognitive bias — common ways of thinking that lead journalists (and audiences and sources) to make avoidable mistakes.

Journalism is particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias: we regularly make decisions at speed; we have to deal with too much information — or extract meaning where there isn’t enough of it. Each of those situations makes us vulnerable to poor decision-making — and many of the rules that we adhere to as journalists are designed to address that.

Some cognitive biases — such as groupthink, prejudice, and confirmation bias (covered in a second post here) — are well-known, but many others are not (there are over 180 of them). That includes bias blind spot: the tendency to see how biases affect other people, but not yourself.

So if you were thinking “this doesn’t apply to me”, read on for a guide to some of the cognitive biases likely to affect journalists — from being manipulated by sources to being bad editors of our own copy — and what to do to tackle them. Continue reading

Teaching journalists how to find stories in company accounts: the story treasure hunt

stormtroopers digging up treasure

“These are not the treasures we’re looking for..” image by Stavos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week I shared some of the tips from a class for students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism on  how to find stories in company accounts. It’s a challenging subject to teach — but for the last couple of years I’ve used an approach that seems to work especially well: a story treasure hunt.

Here’s how it works. Continue reading

Here are 9 ways to find stories in company accounts (and only three of them involve numbers)

Found a conflict of interest on the last page

This week I’m teaching students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism  how to find stories in company accounts — so I thought it would be a good time to share just some of the ways that you can use these public documents for story leads and ideas.

Here, then, are just 9 ways to find stories in company accounts — and most of them don’t involve any numbers at all. Continue reading

Empathy as an investigative tool: how to map systems to come up with story ideas

Zooming out of a network map of homelessness

By starting from one person you can start to identify the different parts of the systems that affect your topic — and useful story leads and ideas

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been helping students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism come up with story ideas for specialist reporting and investigations. Part of the process involves an exercise around scoping out a particular subject or system you are interested in — for example, the housing system, or ‘dark kitchens’, the Oscars, or air pollution — and identifying the gaps in your knowledge that can lead to stories.

It’s an exercise where empathy plays a central role.

Here’s how the process works — and why empathy is so important to it. Continue reading

It’s not all about numbers: 6 ways that data can give you a story lead

Changing figures: 'New data says X' Data leads to an interview feature or profile Data leads to reaction/action story Explainers, infographics + 'in numbers': topical context Explorers: interactives, 'mapped', 'you draw it' A story about the lack of data, or concerns over quality

It’s a common misconception of data journalism that the resulting stories will be all about numbers. In fact, the data is often just a stepping stone — it might take you to interviews, or help you find case studies; it might give you the spark for a feature idea without a single number.

Recently I was asked about these alternatives to ‘number stories’ by one of my part time PGCert Data Journalism students — so here are the 6 tips I shared with them:
Continue reading

How to: plan a journalism project that needs data entry

Panorama source: FOI sent to 144 councils

This Panorama investigation involved entering data from 144 FOI responses

Data-driven reporting regularly involves some form of data entry — some of the stories I’ve been involved with, for example, have included entering information from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, compiling data from documents such as companies’ accounts, or working with partners to collect information from a range of sources.

But you’ll rarely hear the challenges of managing these projects discussed in resources on data journalism.

Last week I delivered a session on exactly those challenges to a factchecking team in Albania, so I thought it might be useful to share the tips from that session here.

They include some steps to take to reduce the likelihood of problems arising, while also helping to ensure a data entry project takes as little time as possible. Continue reading

A guide to Slack for journalism students (and lecturers)

Slack screengrab showing channels on left

A screenshot of the Slack group for MA journalism students at Birmingham City University

For a number of years I’ve been using Slack with students on both the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism, and the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. As a new academic year begins, here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years – whether you are a lecturer considering integrating Slack into your teaching, or a student considering using it in a journalism project.

First things first: why Slack?

Slack is a professional chat app used widely in the media industry to organise projects. It has a number of advantages over other options for communicating between colleagues, whether that’s chat apps such as WhatsApp, or traditional email. These include:

  • The ability to take control over opting in or out of communications (rather than being endlessly ccd in on unimportant messages)
  • The ability to have ‘office hours’ and customise notifications based on your priorities and availability (rather than getting notifications for all communications)
  • A particularly powerful search functionality for finding documents or messages from previous communications
  • The ability to set yourself reminders
  • Automation of aspects of work, such as alerts

When it comes to teaching and learning there are two obvious selling points: firstly it empowers students to manage their own communication (with attendant benefits for mental health).

And secondly, it teaches them how to use an important industry tool. Continue reading