Friday, September 11, 2015

Data Journalism: Not for parents yet

Big Data. Data News. Data Journalism. Data, data, data. The media cannot get enough. Just the other day I awoke to NPR’s Data News Team. Earlier in the week The New York Times discussed the pitfalls of data journalism. I’ve been enjoying The Upshot, the paper’s year-old data journalism column. The Guardian’s Datablog recently came to my attention. In June Google threw up a video of data journalists trying to describe data journalism on YouTube. Who knew MommaData was such a trend setter.

But what exactly is data journalism?

In my dreams it signals a more nuanced, accurate portrayal of issues with news articles rich with supporting studies and statistics with some fact-checking and debunking. Sometimes this has turned out to be the case.

One thing is certain. The term data journalism covers a lot. 

Upshot editor David Leonhardt described it as an effort to “help people to better understand big, complex stories like Obamacare, inequality and the real-estate and stock markets” according to the Guardian. That’s a positive, putting complex phenomenon into perspective. I likey. The Upshot and its brethren offer up a healthy dose of charts, graphs, and slideshows. Visual aids, graphics, are a key aspect of this new data journalism. In other words, it entails showing the data in a stream-lined fashion. Making it more palatable.

Data journalism, no surprise, also involves lots and lots of data. As in big data sets, large caches of numbers, percentages, statistics, yes, nos, maybes, you name it, including government websites, police departments and weather reports. Such data is readily available, supposedly, for journalists (or journalists-computer hacks) to pick through at their leisure. So get ready for journalists in the role of not only computer geek (or vice versa) but also social scientist, creating their own data sets.

So these hybrid storytellers/data techs are in demand at news organizations. Get used to them because it’s easier than ever to find and compile data. Sometimes these hybrid journalists even create the data themselves. Some media, like NPR, have taken to conducting their own surveys and so-called research, at times in collaboration with actual researchers. Frankly, this jury of one finds it unsettling to some degree that the media conducts its own research - some conflicts do exist but that’s another huge conversation. Of course this new media also calls upon their audience to provide the data, hence the newly energized field of citizen journalism.

Speaking of large data sets, Wikipedia distinguishes data journalism from data-driven journalism:

Data-driven journalism, often shortened to "ddj", is a term in use since 2009, to describe a journalistic process based on analyzing and filtering large data sets for the purpose of creating a news story. Main drivers for this process are newly available resources such as open source softwareopen access publishing and open data

Data journalism is a journalism specialty reflecting the increased role that numerical data is used in the production and distribution of information in the digital era. It reflects the increased interaction between content producers (journalist) and several other fields such as designscience and statistics. From the point of view of journalists, it represents "an overlapping set of competencies drawn from disparate fields."

Subtle distinction lost for the most part in the public discussion? Maybe.

It’s enough to give even a data lover a headache. As if I didn’t have one already. Here’s a VIP at a major news organization dissing data:

I think the danger with stories based on numbers is that they can come out feeling too neat, as if the complexity and messiness of the real world can be reduced to mere data. This is why we publish a mix of stories that aim to capture the world in a variety of modes. Data-journalism is one of those modes, and it’s a useful one, so long as you’re aware that it can’t tell a complete story all on its own. 

The danger of stories based on numbers. Yikes. As opposed to the danger of stories based on the opinion of one columnist or bystander or even the one "expert" that responded to a reporter's call by deadline? That’s Margaret Sullivan at The New York Times. In my opinion the media more often fails to provide enough data (and they slap a ridiculous headline on a story that exaggerates the numbers). It’s not that the data doesn’t capture the real world, it’s that the journalist doesn’t put the data into context, perhaps with even further data or existing research. It’s not the numbers that fail to tell the complexity of the story, it’s the lack of nuance and perspective that do in a “story.” Personally, I could use far fewer anecdotes, dramatic comments and biased experts telling us why their results or papers are so surprising or valuable. Sure, numbers and studies get selectively reported, but it’s not the numbers themselves that should be blamed or tossed out.

Mind you, the above discussion at the NY Times occurred in a kerfuffle over the magazine’s cover story on whether creative types are floundering in the new digital economy. Yes that’s what it took to draw out a discussion of the appropriate use of data in a newspaper – if we still call it that.

So we now have journalists (content creators) who also collect and manage large swaths of data. Either by trolling through existing data or gathering it via their own surveys or twitter/call-in audience. It’s heavy on the visuals. Heavy on the numbers.

I’m not sure about the critical evaluation of the data. The new journalism shows the data but what about an in-depth analysis? Is there any rigorous statistical analyses of the data? That should be on readers minds. This new trend appears to rely on exploratory data – so a reporter collects crime statistics, for example, puts them into a neat graphic and boom. Look at my data. Here’s the data. The chart or whatever is interesting, compelling even but not the same as a longitudinal study subjecting the same data to statistical tests. To some degree this new trend ignores traditional research. 

 So what’s a parent to take-away from this new data journalism? Apparently it doesn’t involve children or parents much. Much of this data journalism, in fact the attendant discussion of data journalism, makes no mention of issues directly related to parenting. Politics, the economy, the climate, international affairs, crime rates, even the career prospects of artists –data journalists covers these important topics but still, not a whole lotta love for parents.


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