An international journalism festival this past weekend saw the launch of a free, open-source internet-based book aimed at teaching journalists how to collect and use data, and transform it into stories and user-friendly infographics. Fienie Grobler had a read-through.
The first question that came to mind when reading about this book, available at http://datajournalismhandbook.org/1.0/en/, is – what is data journalism? In short, the answer seems to be that it could either be the source for a story, or a tool through which to tell a story, such as an infographic.
Journalism is evolving, with hacks increasingly enjoying access to information through blogs, social networks and websites, ranging from government websites to Wikileaks. How does a journalist decide which information – or data – is reliable? How does a journalist sift through hundreds of pages of data and make sense of it? This handbook, launched at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, offers some guidelines with examples and case studies of how it has been successfully done in the past.
According to the online book, the way in which The New York Times and the Guardian recently handled the large amounts of data released by Wikileaks, was one of the main factors that sparked increased interest in data journalism.
The book is a collaborative efforts from leading journalism houses, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, the Chicago Tribune, Deutsche Welle, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Helsingin Sanomat, La Nacion, the New York Times, ProPublica, the Washington Post, the Texas Tribune, Verdens Gang, Wales Online and Zeit Online.
Some of the examples of good data journalism include:
– The Las Vegas Sun:
It did a ‘Do No Harm’ series on hospital care in 2010, analysingmore than 2.9 million hospital billing records. This exercise revealed that there were more than 3600 preventable injuries, infections and surgical mistakes. The newspaper obtained data through a public records request and found more than 300 cases where patients died because of mistakes that could have been prevented.
The Las Vegas Sun reported on this by using various tools, an interactive graphic which allows the reader to see by hospital where surgical injuries happened, a map with a timeline that shows infections spreading hospital by hospital, and an interactive graphic that allows users to sort data by preventable injuries.
The result of the investigation? The Nevada legislature introduced six pieces of legislation to try and deal with the problems.
In terms of fact-checking, one of the journalists, Alex Richards, sent data back to hospitals and the state at least a dozen times.
– The Scripps Howard News Service: This project was called ‘Murder Mysteries’. Tom Hargrove used government data and public records to put together a demographically detailed database of more than 185,000 unsolved murders. He then designed an algorithm to search for patterns, which suggested the possible presence of serial killers.
For those journalists concerned about their ability to work with numbers, the book has the following advice: “A reporter certainly does not need a degree in statistics to become more efficient when dealing with data. When faced with numbers, a few simple tricks can help her get a much better story. As Max Planck Institute professor Gerd Gigerenzer says, better tools will not lead to better journalism if they are not used with insight.”
It goes further to say that any journalist working with data needs to ask him-or herself three simple questions:
1. How was the data collected?
2. What’s in there to learn?
3. How reliable is the information?
Also, freelance journalist Michael Blastland recommends that a reporter keeps an open mind when dealing with data.
“Try to let it speak before you slap on your own mood, beliefs or expectations. There’s so much data about that you will often be able to find confirmation of your prior beliefs if you simply look around a bit.
“In other words, data journalism, to me at least, adds little value if you are not open-minded. It is only as objective as you strive to make it, and not by virtue of being based on numbers.”
Fienie Grobler is news editor at the South African Press Association (Sapa).