Why is the knowledge of handling data essential for journalists?

There is a promise in data and this is what excites newsrooms, making them look for a new type of reporter. Look at it this way: instead of hiring journalists to quickly fill pages and websites with low value content the use of data could create demand for interactive packages, where spending a week on solving one question is the only way to do it. This is a welcome change in many parts of the media.

                                                       – Mirko Lorentz, Deutche Welle

It is not true that number crunching is only for investment bankers, everybody needs at least some knowledge of it.

I once shared a desk with one of the star IT & technology reporters of the newspaper, and I was shocked when I saw him working on his travel claims on MS Excel, but doing the arithmetic with a calculator on the side. I was unsure if I wanted to intrude, but I decided that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t teach him how to use the summation function on Excel. And yes, he was our star technology reporter!

If our best reporters used antiquated skills to find and write stories, imagine the number of A1 bylines, Pulitzers and impact on readers they would have with some computing knowledge.

Some journalists (very very few actually) might ask “How is data journalism going to help my reporting abilities?”


Journalists who mater this [data journalism and programming knowledge] will experience that building articles on facts and insights is a relief. Less guessing, less looking for quotes; instead, a journalist can build a strong position supported by data, and this can affect the role of journalism greatly. 

– Mirko Lorentz

This is exactly what some of the new age media houses want to achieve today. A good example for this is what The Atlantic Media does with their online business magazine, Quartz. Their reporters neither need to attribute every fact or quote to somebody, nor do they have to make their journalism dependent on traditional ‘sources’.

Data says a lot.

Leveraging electronic formats [of data] enables journalists to deal with large quantities of information quickly, evaluate data with depth and flexibility, and to share power with readers, giving them the ability to search and review information to suit their own interests. Readers can act as sources, and even become researchers, as when The Guardian shared thousands of legislator’s expense reports public and invited readers to review them.

– Meta S Brown, Contributor @ Forbes


Other than the most obvious reasons for why journalists must know how to handle data — to find and present better stories– here are a few more that may interest you.

  • Updating your skill set: If you are stagnating in your newsroom, and want that jump to a few levels above you, data mining, databases and a little coding will come a long way. Data journalists are also paid more, and that is because you are no longer restricted to newsrooms.
  • Data journalism is the future: In a conversation with Raju Narisetti, in 2011, I asked for advice about shifting from computer science to journalism, and he told me about data journalism. Today, journalists cannot run away from this term.
  • Getting rid of information asymmetry: Sometimes journalists run behind sources and beg them for quotes and attributions. When you know how to get the right data, you can turn in stories faster and look more credible too.
  • One dataset, many stories: As a journalist, sometimes you are lucky to stumble across a loyal well-placed source that can give you many scoops, but that is rare and unpredictable. However, an interesting dataset and the possibilities of various interpretations can be infinite.
  • The missing connections, associations and patterns: It is easier to see connections and patterns in data, rather than in blobs of text. Great truths have been uncovered by journalists, thanks to some form of data. Sometimes even a basic spreadsheet or phone logs can open up an entire world of deceit and foul play.

In my next post, I will talk about what you have to do to become a data journalist.




History of Data Journalism

Data journalism has largely evolved in the last two decades, and continues to evolve from newsroom to newsroom across the globe.

Before the term data journalism came into existence, journalists and editors used another term — Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR). The Data Journalism Handbook, First Edition, July 2012, describes this process as “the first organised, systematic approach to using computers to collect and analyze data to improve the news.”

The first time newsrooms used CAR was in 1952 when CBS tried to predict the result of the US presidential election.

A few decades later, in the 1970s, the term precision journalism was used to describe a type of news-gathering techniques that used the application of social and behavioral science research methods. This practice was encouraged to overcome some of the gaping holes in journalism then, namely dependence on press releases or institutional statements, bias towards sources with authority, and so on.

An increasing number of readers wanted more information than just text blobs, and newsroom editors wanted reporters to provide it efficiently. That was how the term data journalism was born.

While it is said that people used data journalism techniques as early as during the Han Dynasty, a more realistic example is The New York Tribune article in 1849, which had chart to show the number of lives that were being lost to cholera at the time.

Though with the above examples we know that some sort of journalism was practiced across newsrooms, Guardian and The New York Times, brought the term into prominence when Wikileaks, in 2010, released airstrike footage and over 700,000 confidential documents pertaining to US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The documents called ‘Iraq War Logs’ added 15,000 previously unknown civilians to the US public death count.

Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, calls the quoting and sharing of source material and data behind the story as one of the basic ways in which data journalism can improve journalism. He calls this “scientific journalism.”

There are many versions for the term data journalism, but Paul Bradshaw, a renowned data journalist, author and professor at Birmingham City University, keeps it simple and defines data journalism as “a journalism done with data.”

He goes on to say that there are three different stages at which a journalist can incorporate data journalism into the traditional news cycle: using programing languages to gather or mine datasets and information; using software algorithms to find patterns or connections between the data in the documents or datasets; and lastly, to tell a complex story with engaging infographics and visualizations.

In my next post, we can look at how data journalism is useful for journalists.


Useful resources:

The Data Journalism Handbook

The art and science of data journalism by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Scott Klein on the history of data journalism.

The curious journalist’s guide to data