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    Incomprehensible. Is it is supposed to mean that all journalism up to now has been no-data journalism? It’s tempting to agree, but then, where’s the data to back up that accusation?

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    Theuns Kruger

    Feel free to have a look at what we do here at Graphics24, infographic division of Media24 newspapers. We supply news-driven infographics to three Afrikaans daily papers, one English daily paper and two Sunday papers, covering topics such as the census results of last year to the recent crime stats and everything in-between. Go to // to see for yourself that data journalism is alive and well!

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    Good. Do you think that there is truth from facts, or do you think that facts are truth? If facts are truth, then why do we need journalists? Other similar questions are: If form follows function, then who needs architects? Who needs engineers, when there are accountants? I hope you get my drift. Please respond.

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    Theuns Kruger

    There is such a wealth of information available these days that one can cherry-pick as much as you like and visualise it. The trick in my profession is taking data, and presenting it in such a way that a lay person can understand it. Often these data are used to reinforce a journalist’s story, or to add new information pertinent to the story. We are visual journalists, we don’t simply rely on words to tell the story, we interpret data and represent it, showing rather than telling. What you are saying is that journalists are redundant because facts and access to data is so easy? Often, journalists sift through all the clutter of data and home in on the core issues, and highlight those issues. A key aspect in data journalism is that journalists know what data is important enough to use and what may be discarded.

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    I don’t think that journalists are redundant. I do think that truth should be sought from facts, but I don’t think that facts are truth. Truth must be constructed from facts (i.e. there must be an “ascent from abstract to concrete”). Quantitative analysis does not by itself generate qualitative judgement. For you to arrange your data, whether in tabulation or in graphic representation, you must have prior, qualitative values (e.g. in cricket, high scores are good – for batters). What you call data journalism is not actually journalism, it is quantitative analysis and display (and as such, certainly useful). The journalism (value-judgement) comes from somebody else, not you, either by order, or tacitly. All of this is important for other reasons, which I can explain, if you wish.

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    Theuns Kruger

    The fact is that we’re in the infancy of data mining and visualisation. We have attended workshops by international leaders in the field of data visualisation such as Andy Kirk from the UK and Charles Apple from the US, and we know that there are many ways to skin a proverbial cat when it comes to interpreting and representing data. But I think that you cannot generalise in saying that facts aren’t the truth. Facts, like the truth, can change over time. And we don’t always have to work with a journalist in order to analyse and interpret data. It is simply easier to work with journalists because we work as an editorial team. But, for example, when the crime stats were released the other day we decided which stats we were going to focus on and which areas. We could then break the data down to focus on types of crimes, suburbs, etc, but also give a national overview, review trends and make projections (your qualitative judgements). The data is then presented to the editors, and they decide what they would want to keep or discard. There you have your ascent from abstract to concrete. Similarly do we interpret stats from Statistics SA in many different ways, such as census information, and you can then as broadly or as detailed as you wish, but it is still always data-driven. I think what Raymond Joseph is hinting at is that big data is utilised more overseas than here, and that we in SA have been slow in realising the benefit of having access to Big Data, and how we can utilise it an may facets of business, media, research, marketing, socio-economic and other fields, but that the trend is catching on.

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    “Big Data” is not new. May I recommend a book called “IBM and the Holocaust”, by Edwin Black? Spreadsheets were used in the days of slavery. Don’t get me wrong. I love Excel, which as you know can generate all sorts of visual representations, almost instantly. The thing that concerns me now is the “Right to Know” idea. It says that what people need is more data, whereas there is plenty of data – a “wealth of information” is how you correctly put it. “Right to Know” never bothers itself with the Wikileaks data, for example. It never bothers itself with encouraging or publishing new writers, either. It is strictly selling a tacit philosophy, which is also present in this phrase “data journalism”. This philosophy is otherwise called “post-modernism”. In it, free will is considered old hat. Rational discussion is trumped by inexorable facts. Freedom becomes freedom for facts, not people. Your description of how you decide to focus, and then run it past an editor, does not fill me with confidence. At the least, I think you could see that your factual universe could quite quickly become extremely self-referential, and so instead of big, become small and narrow, possibly without you noticing?

    One more example on “Big Data” – apocalyptically big data. Here is a quote about T R Malthus, reputedly the first person to ever be employed as an economist, and his famous 1798 “Essay on Population”: “The importance of Thomas Robert Malthus’s ratios has long been acknowledged. Combined with his use of population figures from America, they gave his first Essay on the Principle of Population the appearance of a scientific study backed by empirical evidence…” and it goes on to say that, actually, Malthus got it very wrong. The scientistic appearance of his data gave his conclusions a spurious authority. Malthus was a propagandist for capitalism. His wish was father of his thought, while his data offered a glossy respectability, but no more than that.

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    Theuns Kruger

    While I guess it’s okay to foray into the realm of philosophy – and you make some valid points – I’m talking about your day-to-day practical applications. The fact that one has to follow an editorial process is not only an essential part of how things in the media works, it also serves as yet another filter for data. The process serves to preserve the integrity of the data, but also of the medium. For example, the editor of Beeld bases his decision on what is right for his readership demographic, for the paper, for the holding company and the press code. It wouldn’t make sense to do an in-depth study of crime on the Cape Flats for his readership, but it would make sense to compare crime on the Cape Flats with crime in Gauteng. It therefore makes more sense for the editor of Die Burger down in Cape Town to feature crime stats for his local readership. The fact is that often our department has to process huge amounts of data in order to produce understandable bits of information relevant to each publication. I agree that not all data should be taken as gospel, but I must argue that data from reputable sources are increasingly important in the sphere of media that I operate within, and that with judicious use it can be a tremendous boon. It is one of the more powerful tools in our arsenal.

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    Philosophy is indispensable, but history is just as indispensable. Saying that the use of data is new and revolutionary is not credible when you know about the impact of the Hollerith punch-card machine in the 19th century, and going back even before Malthus to the 18th-century Royal Navy, for example, how important was the collection, presentation and propagation of data in history. Always there was intention, and purpose, and always these intentions and purposes get revolutionised, so that what surpasses and prevails is not the gathering and analysis of data, as such, but rather the intentions of the gatherers, analysts, presenters and propagators. Editorial processes are an essential part, as you say, but are these visible? Are they disclosed? Are they open to continuous criticism? What is Beeld about, for example? I am afraid that the presentation of data as either value-free, or as presenting “obvious”, intrinsic, passive-voice values, is promoting something we had begun to get away from, which is the claim of journalists to be neutral, whereas they are never neutral, and cannot possibly be neutral. Nor should they be neutral, but they should be honest. If they are not partizan, then they are mercenaries, which is worse. Is “data journalism” a hired gun? Which side are you on, that’s what matters in all journalism, of whatever kind. There is no place to hide, not even behind a graph.

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    The inventor of double-entry book-keeping is supposed to have been the Italian Luca Pacioli (1445-1517), while the French term “contreroule”,corresponding to the “control account”, aggregate, or summary, may be even earlier in origin.

    Such conceptions of aggregated data were some of the instruments by which the old, feudal medieval order was overturned by the urban-based business class. This business class could not have expanded towards hegemony without the assistance of such instruments.

    The history of data processing and presentation is long. The major consequent social effects of it have already long ago been felt. What then constitutes the novelty claimed by the promoters of “data journalism”? Why is the novelty emphasised, while its nature is left obscure?

    In my opinion there is nothing new in “data journalism”, but there is an offer of something like a trump card or of plural trump cards for every occasion. What is being suggested is presentation of data that would be so convincing that it would stop all argument.

    In other words, what is being pursued here is a means of closing discussion, and not of opening discussion.

    The social pursuit of truth requires constant dialogue. The process of human development in general is conducted as dialogue – dialogue around the crucial matters of the day.

    So there is a paradox in this matter of “data journalism”. The most brilliant, overwhelmingly convincing presentation of data would intentionally be the one that arrests dialogue by closing all arguments; whereas the only way to develop ideas is through more argument, and not less.

    The premise of “data journalism” should be rejected.

    The way forward is not to develop more dazzling ways of overcoming opposition. The way forward is to encourage more people to reason, to question, and to problematise, and to be able to transact a public dialogue within which questions are open, and not shut.

    If the data dictate, then free will is not required. Free will could even be represented as irresponsible. The pursuit of “convincing data” is in this sense a flight from freedom. This is where the nature of freedom, the power of decision, reappears as Adam’s curse. Truth can only be pursued in freedom. The act of free will is something else, and it always carries a risk.

    The data will not take the decision for you. Nobody can say “there is no alternative”, even in the face of the most overwhelming graphic presentation.

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    Theuns Kruger

    It seems as if you’re trying to debunk data as a credible source of news. A newspaper’s editorial process and decisions is there for all to see in the end result: the newspaper. Therein the editor places his own credibility as well as that of the paper on the line, so it serves in his best interest to represent the facts (be they statements or data) as truthfully as possible. Furthermore, the source of data or information is usually verified. That is why sources such as Stats SA are an invaluable resource, because the numbers are verifiable, and can therefore be presented as truth. One cannot argue with hard data. Those facts take opinion and bias out of the equation. Data doesn’t choose sides, and to suggest that one has to be on a certain ‘side’ might be seen as a little insulting, seeing that journalists pride themselves for being impartial.

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    Thanks. I wrote a new post this morning (see above), trying to start again at this point, and go towards a conclusion. But you have now put the matter very clearly: “One cannot argue with hard data,” you say. That would be the attraction of “data journalism,” i.e. to be decisive and impartial at the same time, free will no longer required, decisions arrived at without anyone making a judgement. This is post-modernism, also called the “Death of the Subject”. In its opposite – modern, republican democracy – everyone is responsible, while in post-modernism, no-one is responsible. It is not an insult to say that for no-one to be responsible is an illusion. In fact we humans cannot escape from free will, and free will is also the source of morality. No free will, no morality. To be making decisions is our “original sin”, but it is also “the knowledge of good and evil”. No-one is exempt. The journalist who denies having a point of view, is hiding something. The data must be capable of challenge. The journalist must leave that door open. The noble task of the journalist is to illuminate, not only the external, but also the intentional, including his or her own intentions. In that case the journalist has “levelled” with the reader, which is the best the journalist can do. To present the reader with no choice is not journalism, in my opinion. It would be oppression. Journalism is to open dialogue, not close it.

    Our discussion has been the more useful because our points of view are so clearly opposed. Thank you.

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