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Datajournalism: Reporting the Truth, in Numbers

A picture tells a thousand words, the adage goes, but what about numbers, graphs and pie charts? They all seem more common in the classroom than newsroom, but a growing field of journalism is eschewing a text- or photo-centered approach and relying instead on data to tell stories.

If you frequent this website or any other design-related ones, you'd have come across them. Infographics and data visualizations have become a staple in blogs with their design-savvy and quick, snappy content explaining anything from the State of the Internet to the many different brews of beer there are. Now, they're fast becoming a favorite among journalists as well.

It's called datajournalism, but it isn’t just about slapping a pretty pie chart on a news story. Data journalists weave compelling narratives, often of the investigative variety, using statistics and numbers—and not, say, press statements or interviews—as their primary sources.

Less opinionated than what a written analysis tends to be but more expository than a photo spread, data is an incisive and neutral enough tool with which a writer can get down to an issue’s heart and explore all its corollaries.

“Traditional text and photography cannot tell a story in the way datajournalists can,” Simon Rogers, editor of the Guardian’s Datablog tells us. “[But] if you can’t manipulate data, you will just miss the story.”

The British newspaper launched the Datablog in 2009 to little fanfare—“At that time, we thought it would be relatively insignificant,” Rogers admits—but is now considered one of the leading exponents of the field. Currently, it regularly publishes colorful infographics of anything from the UK national deficit over the years to the most-followed personalities on Twitter.

Datajournalism isn’t exactly new; it has its roots in investigative reporting when old-school gumshoe reporters used to manually scour company or national databases in search of evidence to back up a scoop. But the form has gained considerable traction over the last few years after governments started posting large sets of data online on websites like Data.gov or Data.gov.uk, Rogers explains.

And then WikiLeaks came along with its cache of sensitive, government-killing documents, effectively “chang[ing] the game”, according to Rogers. “Suddenly everyone wanted to analyze data,” he says.

When the whistle-blowing website leaked its trove to media like the Guardian and The New York Times, both papers thoroughly dissected the unedited cables and dressed them up for public consumption—and then datajournalism blossomed into a substantial field in itself.

“It will become standard practice for every journalist,” Rogers predicts. “So much so, we won’t even notice they’re doing it.”

But as the British newspaper has shown, numbers and statistics are dry pills to swallow, so images and visuals help ‘lubricate’ the story.

Take for instance the Guardian’s sprawling graphic of every death in Afghanistan from improvised explosive devices. Each KIA was pinned to their specific location on a map of the Middle Eastern nation, all untangled from the web of dates and times, tracking numbers and military reports procured by WikiLeaks. The graphic sits prominently above the text on the Guardian website, so much so that everything else is rendered secondary.

In a way, the Guardian piece and countless other ‘interactive features’ atop The New York Times’ home page have promoted data visualization as a story’s real meat as opposed to just decorative icing on the cake.“Data will reveal its story to you once you start to analyze it; you can see new angles beyond what you initially thought the story was,” says Robin Richards, information design director of JESS3, a creative shop specializing in data visualization, and whose gorgeous work has graced many a webpage.

To Richards, data visualization allows readers to “have a clear understanding of the subject without the filter of a writer between them and the story”. For example, while a traditional text-based article would need several references pointing the reader to different webpages, infographics can “visually show” the connections and links between related points, Richards explains.

Nathan Yau, a PhD candidate in statistics who runs the blog FlowingData, agrees with this, adding that visualization shows data “in the same way” photographs show the physical world. And because so much of human culture today is fed by a steady diet of information, data isn’t just blinking numbers you see on computers.

“Data is a representation of real life, and charts and graphs can help you see what's going on in the numbers. That said, I think words and visualization make a great combination,” Yau notes.

But the boom in datajournalism isn’t so much an effect of an information-saturated world than it is a shore against it.

As user-generated content by way of blogs and citizen journalism have gone from being a revelation in media to an actual flood of inane commentary, news publishers are using hard data as a means to appear more trustworthy. The Guardian, for example makes all the datasets it uses available for download as hardcore spreadsheets, an invitation perhaps to show no aces up the sleeve.

But as open as data makes itself out to be, there is a risk of misrepresenting the numbers to suit an article’s point of view.

“Assuming the data has been collected in a fair way, then the data itself is neutral. The interpretation can be biased, however,” Yau warns. “You have to take in the context of what the numbers mean and look at the big picture.”

The challenge for datajournalists, then, is how to balance something as concrete and unyielding as data with the flair of storytelling. A good visualization will need to be something more than just a straight representation of numbers, Yau explains. “Give me context, and tell me what I’m looking at or what’s important to note in the data,” he says.

For the recently-held South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, JESS3 worked with Samsung on an installation aimed at presenting to attendees what was happening during the festival, which comprised many small, individual events.

But rather than a run-of-the-mill calendar, the agency took a more human approach; they built a screen that displayed relevant tweets, check-ins and photos—alongside the actual schedule—to give the viewer a real-time overview of the entire conference.

“We try to give whatever we do a soul,” Richards says. “By that I mean we always try to pull out the human side of visualization by asking two questions: What is the data relationship, and why is that important to me?”

While as a creative shop JESS3 clearly edges toward the design end what data visualization can be used for, its approach to storytelling isn’t far off from what the Guardian or the Times do in their features—both are immediately relatable and accessible to the reader and have strong, consistent angles to maintain interest

“Designers have an incredible important role to play,” Rogers explains of the various skills a datajournalist needs. Ultimately, the editor says using data in the news is about making stories clearer and easier to understand.

“The world has become a very confusing place.”

Image from JESS3
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