Idea magazine, June 27, 2012
Journalism is in crisis but hunger for news has exploded. Is data journalism the internet era’s answer to the woes of the industry, and does it tell the public what it needs to know?
There was a time when ‘data journalism’ was a synonym for infographics – everything from pie charts sitting astride newspaper stories on the latest government budget, to exploded-view diagrams of airliners in Popular Mechanics magazine. Today, though, the term has a much deeper meaning.
Given the penetration into every sphere of life by information technology it won’t come as much of a shock that vast quantities of data about anything you care to consider are stored and processed in a multitude of databases, primarily by the state but also by business.
The goal of data journalism is to access this information, filter it, often to visualise it with infographics and then present the story as told by the numbers.
A life in numbers
Irish reporter Gerard Cunningham has spent long periods of his career engaged in investigations, including into clerical sex abuse and garda corruption. For him, data journalism is a new way of doing what journalists has always done.
“A lot of investigative journalism is data journalism in slow motion: spending a day at the land registry or Companies House looking at who owns what,” he says.
The question is: is the information that tells the story actually available? It very much depends what data – and from whom – you’re after, says Cunningham. “You’re relying on governments to publish data and, in this country [but] it doesn’t.”
Cunningham has a point. As a young journalist, this reporter was awestruck by the work of US financial reporter Doug Henwood who produces a weekly radio programme and monthly newsletter on economic affairs. Like all journalists, my first instinct simple: copy the idea. Unfortunately for me Henwood lives in a country where the various government departments pump-out statistics at a head-spinning rate, while I live in one where, apart from an annual data dump by the Central Statistics Office, numbers are hard not only in the sense of being factual, but also hard to come by. One goal of contemporary data journalism is to change this kind of situation.
A life in numbers
A notable success story in Irish data journalism is TheStory.ie. Founded by Mark Coughlan and Gavin Sheridan, two rising stars among Irish reporters, TheStory.ie was created to make the most of the information available from the government that often goes unexamined.
Since 2009, TheStory.ie has made liberal use of freedom of information (FoI) requests to gain access to state information that remains unpublished.
“Mainly I’ve focussed on spending data – using the freedom of information act to get access to things like the Taoiseach’s spending for 2010,” says Sheridan.
Sheridan says Irish news media have been slow to take the reins, but things are beginning to change.
“It’s easy for me to have a blog and move fast, but it can be difficult for institutions. The Irish Times is starting to look at it, as is the Irish Examiner,” he says.
Techniques like scraping are becoming more important, as are skills like processing and visualisation.
Because of the times we live in. “The growing abundance of data being published, especially online, is a major reason,” says Sheridan. “Techniques like scraping are becoming more important, as are skills like processing and visualisation.”
Jeff Colley, editor of Construct Ireland magazine has applied these very techniques, digging into numbers from statutory body Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to expose widespread industry failure to adhere to building standards.
“As the editor of a specialist magazine, I was interested in how to challenge seemingly solid claims and, indeed, solid-seeming data,” he says.
Colley found that 93% of surveyed Irish homes did not comply with regulations on reducing the risk of fire spreading from oil storage tanks, while 42% did not meet minimum ventilation standards.
Moving into data journalism did not come easily to him, but it has already paid dividends in producing stories. “It’s a culture shock to be sat looking at reams of data and be talking about ‘standard deviation’, or whatever,” says Colley.
Everything old is new again
On one level there is nothing new about data journalism: journalists have always dealt in information. The word news itself is simply an archaic plural of new, so the reporter’s job, if not always easy, is certainly simple to understand: tell people something they didn’t already know.
Ask a reporter of a certain age, preferably an American, to name a journalistic hero and it’s a fair bet that more than a few will respond with the name IF Stone. Political reporter Isidor Feinstein Stone was arguably the greatest newspaperman of the 20th century and yet he operated in a way unlike most of his fellows. Apart from the fact that Stone quit the press to publish his own newsletter, IF Stone’s Weekly, Stone didn’t bother going to press conferences, rarely interviewed anyone and never glad-handed politicians of bureaucrats. Instead he spent hours pouring over long, dull government documents, reports and even ignored bits of published news, looking for facts that others had missed. The result? Scoops, including being able to contradict official sources on how far away underground nuclear bomb test could be detected.
Other continuities exist between data journalism and plain old-fashioned reporting, too.
The influential news agency Reuters was founded not to carry news and also financial data in the form of stock and commodity prices. As historian Donald Read notes in the company’s official history, Julius Reuter was no reporter, he was a capitalist dealing in the commodity of the day: information. Money came first and news followed it. Indeed, during the Crimean War of 1854-56 Reuters had no news clients and so, despite the competitive technological advantage it had over the Times of London (Retuers wired reports whereas the Times dispatched them by ship), Reuters was only able to report ‘market-moving’ events. Just two years later Reuters was digesting official state information and newspaper reports and dispatching them across the globe via wire and so the news agency was born. There is a perhaps bitter irony that as news rose with the growth of business, so it now falls as business is in productive retreat: Thomson Reuters now makes more than half of its profits from specialist business data rather than generalist news.
There is one very novel thing about data journalism, though: it has come at a time of crisis for the news business.
Tell me what I don’t already know
As with all brave new worlds, there is some scepticism about data journalism.
Patrick Hayes, commentator for the UK-based online magazine Spiked says the methods underlying data journalism are often similar to those that informed the notorious tabloid phone hacking scandal, in which reporters allegedly tapped-into mobile phone voicemail systems in the hope of picking-up bits of salacious gossip.
“A lot of it is mining data with no real sense of what you’re looking for. With investigative journalism you start with an idea of what you’re after,” he says. “It’s often the worst possible journalism. In fact, it’s not even journalism as it’s not following the public interest. It’s telling that they talk about the quantity [of revelations] rather than quality.”
If it sounds unlikely, consider this: perhaps the best known example of data journalism, certainly the most controversial, is WikiLeaks, but other than a bit of diplomatic gossip nothing ‘revealed’ in Wikileaks’ biggest coup, the publication of US diplomatic cables, would have been a mystery to anyone who reads a decent newspaper every day.
Others worry about the skewing of stories, particularly as newspapers exist in such straitened circumstances.
Michael Cross, a London-based journalist was involved in the early days of data journalism at the Guardian newspaper says: “It’s often a way to do something on the cheap. The Guardian has led the way – and I played a small part in that – but if you look at recent examples of data journalism you find that third party organisations are doing the number crunching.”
Cross says this can lead to the disguising of politically motivated attacks that, while factual, do not tell the whole story.
Flipping the politics around, NGOs and interest groups regularly fire out numbers that serve their cause more than they tell the whole story. Take any newsworthy issue, from global warming to prostitution, and there will be an endless parade of numbers emanating from governments, charities, lobbyists, activists and others, few of which appear to have been scrutinised with any degree of rigour. Indeed, while we have all learned to be wary of what comes from the mouths of politicians and businessmen, too many of us take the word of charities as the plain truth.
Knowledge, by the numbers
It is no accident that data journalism appeared when it did. Despite the continuities with traditional reporting, particularly investigative journalism, data journalism is a product of the Internet era – and this is something that has played-out in a number of ways, two of which are particularly significant: the free-fall in newspaper readership and the public’s insatiable demand for information. It’s a contradiction. Happily, resolving contradictions by way of contextualisation is one of the key aspects of a journalist’s role. So: could it be that our always-on, but never-paying, internet culture is the centre of the apparent conflict?
I put this thesis to Andrew Calcutt, professor of journalism at the University of East London.
Never one to disappoint, Calcutt’s response was an impassioned plea for the role of the reporter: “It’s the download. Collecting material, putting it in a folder and saying ‘There you are now’ isn’t enough. It’s the responsibility of journalists to make judgement, just as it is to get the information to be judged. The two things have to be connected.”
For Calcutt, data journalism is in danger of becoming a fetish for bits and bytes. “All that information can be useful [but] in a time of information glut, data still doesn’t speak for itself,” he says. “What still makes the story is what the journalist is able to make of it; to express it in the coherent form of the write-up. The more formulated a story is, the more journalistic it is. The more the information speaks for itself, the less it has to say.”
Calcutt is not issuing a jeremiad against new journalistic practices and is happy to acknowledge the value of the information being presented. Instead he is simply arguing for the marriage of journalistic practices that have come apart in recent years.
“Opinion-mongering with virtually no reference to information is the parallel strand to information that is supposed to speak for itself,” he says.
In this he isn’t alone. Michael Cross says that data journalism will produce results, but only when it is married to what reporters have always done: produce news readers want to read.
“I don’t think we’ve got it right yet, but there is clearly a role for a type of journalism that looks at hard facts and makes them available to readers,” he says.