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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

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