When reading a blog post entitled ‘Where should an aspiring data journalist start?‘ I came across a very interesting conversation in the comments section. A journalist called Matt said:
‘A key issue for me is humanising the data – trying to match experiences with the information, putting faces to the stories which emerge from the data. Case studies, that sort of thing. That way it becomes easier for TV and radio editors to give the nod to this sort of material – traditional broadcast media, in my experience often doesn’t see itself as a natural home for this sort of material.‘
This is worth exploring. The big question that jumped out at me is, WHERE DOES DATA JOURNALISM WORK FOR THE CONSUMER?
Here is a breakdown of the main media platforms and the suitability of data journalism to each one. I have used a marking scheme, where 1/10 is very unsuitable and 10/10 is perfectly suited.
Newspapers (not including online):
PROS A good platform because it is an effective means of breaking up a text heavy page, adding a visual element for the reader and making the data easier to digest.
CONS Not interactive and no movement to show data change. Mark 7/10
PROS Endless possibilities i.e. easily share data sets or visualisations, consumer can interact and change variables, high level of transparency i.e. consumer can follow where the data came from and see it in its raw format.
CONS Can become throwaway because of easy availability, and there is a big element of citizen journalism which is not necessarily completely trustworthy i.e. anyone can get the data and use open source tools so how do you decide which stories are reliable? Mark 9/10
PROS Hearing the real people behind the numbers makes good radio – it adds warmth to otherwise very cold, lifeless data. Shocking percentages make good audio headlines e.g. 1 in 3 16 to 17 year olds are unemployed.
CONS This is a very difficult medium to make data journalism work for the listener. A rule of thumb in any script writing for radio is to use numbers sparingly – the listener quickly becomes overwhelmed and disengaged. The attractive infographics or visualisations that we associate with good data journalism are lost. Mark 3/10
PROS Graphics are a mainstay of many TV news reports nowadays, and a well designed infographic and/or data visulisation can work very well. The journalist can even stand amongst the graphic, interacting on behalf of the viewer.
CONS The mantra for TV news is ‘does it have good pictures’? Data is distinctively lacking in interesting/shocking/engaging footage which makes it a hard sell to a news editor. The story that comes out of a data set has to be pretty significant to make it onto the TV news agenda. Mark (current use) 6/10 (potential) 8.5/10
Take a look at this Sky News report on the Wikileaks cable story, and the lack of pictures quickly becomes obvious. There’s only so many shots of a document you can watch:
So, the main 2 hurdles that a successful data journalist must jump are:
a) filter and handle the data to make it easy and quickly absorb for the consumer; and
b) adjust how this is done to suit the platform.
As Matt suggested above, ‘humanising’ data is an effective way of doing both those things for BROADCAST media. ‘People’ are a fundamental of effectively communicating any news story – human interest engages the consumer. But that is not always possible or appropriate and it can become a distraction to have to tick the human interest box as a prerequisite.
There is a wide gap between communicating data journalism in print and through broadcast, and the broadcasters are currently lagging well behind.
Data journalism is already proving to be a major source of big news stories, so broadcasting organisations need to quickly learn how to deliver it.
By Michael Greenfield (@mgreenfield13)