Mine the data in the digits to find the scoops someone’s trying to hide
is a freelance journalism trainer and consultant, specialising in data journalism
You sometimes hear suggestions that data journalism could be the saviour of journalism. In a world in which people are buying fewer newspapers and so much information is available free, some observers of trends look for anything which could help rescue our noble profession.
Certainly, in a world where citizen journalism could make anyone a journalist, trained reporters are always looking for something which distinguishes the hack from the pack.
Data journalism may well fit the bill. And when you have a broadcaster such as the BBC which is able to turn its online firepower into interactive graphics, such as this vivid visualiser of unemployment in the UK, the case for data journalism as a game-changing discipline is easily made.
Well, yes. But the battle isn’t over yet. Citizen journalists can take heart from the thought that there’s more to data journalism than visualising official statistics: there is so much data available nowadays that there’s plenty to go around, and almost anyone can have a go at interpreting it in an interesting way.
If data visualisation is your passion there are dozens of free tools to help you turn tables of figures into any manner of interesting graphics.
So, with terabytes of data out there to be analysed by just about anyone with a suitable set of tools, there is real journalism to be done: finding the facts and figures that someone somewhere didn’t want you to know, and who accidentally or deliberately buried them under mountains of 1s and 0s! It’s what’s been termed ‘the conceptual scoop'.
The analogy described here, of a ‘Magic Eye’ art poster made up of thousands of dots where you have to stand back and concentrate for the real picture to emerge, is an effective one.
Over the years a good few Pulitzer Prizes have been won by journalists using data - but in truly imaginative ways. This year’s winner in the public service category wrote a classic investigation - using toll plaza data that revealed some Florida police were driving at ridiculous speeds in their own cars on public roads, with fatal consequences, and nothing was being done about it. No graphs or interaction necessary - the data is a crucial witness. And without 21st Century data-collection and analysis the Sun Sentinel’s reporters could not have found out something which someone somewhere most certainly would not have wanted the reader to know.