Home > Uncategorized > Data journalism can transform numbers into stories

Data journalism can transform numbers into stories

The primary job of a journalist is to seek the truth and report it.

There’s often truth in numbers, but data can be scary to people who love words and often profess a hatred of math.

Using data journalism to create graphics and stories that visualize and add to data sets is a tool as essential to a reporter’s toolbox as a pen. As the Internet advances, so do the ways in which the media processes and reports numbers.

Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said data should be used like any other source.

“You treat it like a source, you interview it like a source, you understand that, like a source, it has a point of view — it has flaws — it’s actually a very human thing,” Waite said.

Data journalism has existed since the 1960s, when computers the size of gas stations took days to compute simple equations. More than 50 years laters, such computing can be done in the palm of your hand.

Practiced correctly, data journalism can turn ordinary numbers into complex, emotional pieces of journalism. Take high school football, for example: Writing a story with only words about how many small-town Nebraska teams are left and the challenges those schools face — like travel time and mileage between towns — would not be interesting. Showing it, on the other hand, can add to the words.

That’s exactly what the Omaha World-Herald did with “the disappearance of small-town football,” a multi-media project. Using interactive maps, photos and text, the piece shows how small-town football teams are slowly dying in Nebraska.

As much as data can add to a story, journalists must be careful not to lie with numbers. Waite said data can lie by the “sin of commission or omission.”

“The old saying is that ‘if you torture data sufficiently, it will confess to anything,’” Waite said.

He gave the example of FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ statistics blog. The publication reported that kidnappings in Africa were on the rise. But, the blog was using the number of news reports of kidnappings to collect numbers, rather than numbers of actual kidnappings. It also did not provide sufficient context.

Even so, if used carefully, numbers hold great weight.

“(Data allows) the ability to see beyond three anecdotes and a quote,” Waite said.

Below, The New York Times shows just how visual data can be:

_By Reece Ristau

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 6, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    Journalism and math don’t typically go hand in hand, but they should. Journalism students should not be saying, “Good thing I never have to take a math class again because I’m a journalism major.” The mindset should be the opposite.

    People in general aren’t always comfortable with numbers, but the numbers can tell a story. It is on the journalist to put those numbers in a easy and clear way for the reader. If the journalist can’t do it, then how are those numbers going to be conveyed. Matt Waite’s quote about treating numbers and stats like a source is spot on. I have never thought of it that way before, but he makes a lot of sense.

    The video was an great example of telling a story with numbers. The video could have just been simple and said, “Usain Bolt is about three seconds faster than Olympic runners in 1896.” But where’s the story in that?

    This is also a good time for the post since mid-term elections are happening. News organizations had to deal with a lot of numbers this week.

  2. November 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Editors need to be particularly good with numbers. These data pieces are often the reporter, designer and developer’s baby and they can easily miss the discrepancies or errors in the information or format. Data journalism is a great way to give readers information in a much more visual way, but that information still needs to be checked, checked and triple checked.

  3. November 12, 2014 at 12:45 am

    I really enjoy that you did your blog on this topic. I think it’s important for editors to understand how mathematical errors can affect their credibility. Graphics and tables are such a great way to interact with audience and represent what words cannot. Therefore, it is important for editors to understand these terms and numbers. Great job!

  4. November 19, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    This post is particularly relevant to me as a journalist, as I’m sure it is for many other writers who might think that being a good writer excuses one from having to use math. You described beautifully the way that data turns into a story, and that it’s therefore important to treat data like a source. I think a smart journalist uses numbers to enhance and give weight to a story in a way that mere words could not. Your interview with Matt Waite was great–his passion for data journalism is transparent and his knowledge about the subject really added to this post in an effective way.

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