Data Journalism – The Hidden Truth

Data-driven journalism is respected for its credibility of fact and figures. If you ever need to clarify information, it is presented right there in front of you. It is truthful and valid but only IF the information is analysed correctly.

The ability to interpret data is an impressive must-have skill on any journalist’s C.V. After all, it would be pointless to be presented with the most incredible set of raw data and not know what to do with it.

Why is it such an important skill? The wealth of stories that can be sourced from data is endless. What you have to remember with data is that it can be manipulated in so many ways to give a journalist different angles to tackle a story.

But without a good understanding of how to scrutinize data, you could be left with stories that don’t discuss the results of the data, but instead debate the concept of data!

For example, Wikileaks revealed so much information that was hidden from the public. It shocked, appalled and uncovered the wrongdoings of people in high-flying positions. Even what was uncovered was momentarily discussed, the focus of the data’s exposure turned to whether or not the data itself should have been released.

The exposure’s potential threat to national security was discussed. However, I believe the journalists had no idea how to extract the stories from the data. So instead, the actual leak of data became the story.

Accessing data sometimes poses few problems, but acquiring the tools to edit and explore that data can be difficult. For example, data released in .pdf forms can only be read. For a journalist working to deadlines, reading through .pdf files can be time-consuming.

Plus, it is impossible to copy data in .pdf files to a spreadsheet. Instead, the journalist has to manually type out and implement data into another more user-friendly format.

This use of .pdf files could be intentional  to limit the amount of data scrutiny but it is debatable.

However, the government have plans to change the law so that all information released under the freedom of information act is accessible by computer. This could make the journalist’s task easier. SA Mathieson and Gill Hitchcock posted an article in the Guardian Datablog about this. Click here to read it.

The Combined Online Information System (COINS) website was set up in June 2010. It is an enormous database containing HM Treasury’s detailed analysis of departmental spending sorted into thousands of categories.

Prior to the 2010 general election, the Treasury turned down requests under the freedom of information act to release data in COINS. However, the Conservatives pledged to release the information if they came to power. So the 120gb of data was made publicly available on June 4th 2010.

The release of data to some companies can be damaging to their reputation. After tooting their own “iHorn” about their world domination of portable media devices, Apple have yet to release sales figures of their iPad2. With the release of the first iPad, they bragged about selling a phenomenal 300,000 units over one weekend and published its sales figures first thing on the Monday morning after the Friday release.

It has been suggested by market analysts that Apple could have sold anywhere from 400,000 to 1,000,000 units this weekend.

Are Apple refraining from releasing their sales figures because of the lack of units shifted? Or maybe boasting about sales figures was a marketing technique they can no longer use to promote their product further as the data will be there in black and white.

In an interview with Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers,  I asked him if there was a negative side to data journalism.

He commented, “Poor visualisations, poor analysis, an overly-heavy focus on things that might seem diverting don’t actually tell us anything.”


This entry was posted in Data Sources, How is data journalism used?, Misuse of data and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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