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
This is the lead from an Oct. 14 story in The Washington City Paper:
The young man accused of killing former Washington Pigskins free safety Sean Taylor six years ago in a botched armed robbery in Miami is finally headed to trial.
NFL fans will know that none of the 32 teams in the league is nicknamed the “Pigskins.” But the name is not an error that slipped through layers of editing, but how the paper has chosen to refer to the Washington Redskins.
The Washington City Paper and a handful of other newspapers around the country have decided the name Redskins is a racial slur and refuse to use it when referring to the NFL team.
On Wednesday the San Francisco Chronicle announced that it would also stop referring to the football team as the Redskins.
“Our long-standing policy is to not use racial slurs—and make no mistake, ‘redskin’ is a slur—except in cases where it would be confusing to the reader to write around it. For example, we will use the team name when referring to the controversy surrounding its use,” Managing Editor Audrey Cooper told the Poynter Institute in an email.
The team’s name has been a source of controversy for years, but lately it has been making headlines because a group is trying to get the NFL to drop the name. On Wednesday members of the Oneida Indian Nation met with NFL officials to call for a name change, The Washington Post reported.
Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue, telling the Associated Press if he were the owner of the Redskins he would think about changing the name.
Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, has made his feelings on the issue clear.
“We’ll never change the name,” Synder told USA Today Sports. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
The Kansas City Star hasn’t used the team’s nickname in years. Public Editor Derek Donovan wrote in a blog post on the newspaper’s website that the name is a racial epithet.
“And I’ll even break my usual rule about commenting on issues outside The Star’s journalism to say that I find it inconceivable that the NFL still allows such a patently offensive name and mascot to represent the league in 2012,” Donovan wrote.
But reader reaction to the decision has been mixed. When The Oregonian stopped using nicknames like the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins in 1992 the majority of the feedback was negative.
Other readers welcome the changed, saying it’s a step in the right direction. Either way, it presents challenges for reporters and editors trying to write stories and headlines about the team.
The Washington City Paper decided to rename the team. It asked readers to vote on five different names. In all references the team is now called the Washington Pigskins.
This may seem a bit extreme, but I think the paper is making the right decision. If readers are uncomfortable and feel personally offended by the word then it shouldn’t be used.
Many were skeptical when it was announced that Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, had purchased The Washington Post from long-time owner Donald Graham for a mere $250 million. In August, when the news first broke, questions outnumbered answers. What would he change? Why sell to somebody with no newspaper experience?
When the sale was finalized on Oct. 2, questions remained. But throughout the past two months, some clarity has trickled in on how Bezos plans to run the money-losing paper.
In a memo to his new employees, Bezos said the core values of the paper will remain the same. The news organization’s dedication to cover the topics people in the Washington D.C. area care most about—specifically government—will not change. Bezos does hint in the memo, however, that the Post will be more experimental with its news coverage, and how that coverage is presented, in the future.
“There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy,” he wrote. “We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment.”
He acknowledges the tumultuous times the journalism industry has experienced for the past 15 years. He can’t predict the future for print journalism. He does make one heck of a case that he’s dedicated to finding a method that works, though. And according to this USA Today article, his new employees are all in on the move.
Even so, many remain skeptical. This is, after all, an industry that requires a more-than-average amount of skepticism.
In an appearance on “The B.S. Report” with Bill Simmons, long-time writer for The New Yorker and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell shares his skepticism regarding the sale of the Post to Bezos. In my first sentence, I say “a mere $250 million” when referring to the amount Bezos paid for the Post because that’s all it is—to him.
As Gladwell points out, $250 million only amounts to about 1 percent of Bezos’s net worth.
“It’s a rounding error,” Gladwell says in the podcast. “We may be overstating how big of a deal this is for (Bezos). Maybe he just thinks ‘why not? play with it for a couple years, see if it’s interesting and maybe move on.’ His empire is now so vast that this is just like…this is going out for a cup of coffee. He didn’t make some massive commitment.”
Bezos purchased the Post under Nash Holdings LLC, a private investment company that was created specifically for the acquisition of the media organization. Nash Holdings is not connected to Amazon.com, which some, Gladwell being one, see negatively. It gives the impression that this is just a side thing for Bezos.
“If he bought it for his company, I would have thought ‘Oh, he has a kind of grander scheme for integrating the Post into this formidable organization that he’s built,’” Gladwell says. “If he’s buying it for himself, it doesn’t seem like that’s at the top on his list.”
Bezos has said he will still devote almost all of his attention to his day job at Amazon.com, which is based 2,760 miles away in Seattle. He said he will visit the Post periodically, but Publisher Katharine Weymouth and executive editor Martin Baron will be the higher-ups on site for a majority of the time.
So to answer the 2-month-old questions, I don’t think much will change. The Post may have a little bit more flexibility with the increased monetary backing that Bezos certainly provides, but the day-to-day operations are still filtering through the same core group of people. Ultimately I’m with Gladwell on this one: I don’t think Bezos will end up being somebody who introduces a game-changing solution to the problems facing the journalism industry.
It’s possible, though, that he’ll prove Gladwell and I wrong and leave as big of a footprint on journalism as he has on the online retail industry.
_ Alex Lantz
You have a split second to make a decision that could mean life or death. Do you reach out a hand to a victim of an accident or capture the moment forever in a photograph? If you choose the latter, does the provocative-yet-gruesome image belong on the front page of a family newspaper?
Humanity and ethics are topics of great debate when it comes to journalism. We are constantly questioning where to draw the line between duty as a photojournalist and desire to help our fellow man. The first journalism class I ever took started the first day with a photograph of a young boy being suspended on a fence by a post pierced through his cheek. Our teacher posed a provoking question: Do you help him down or do you take the photograph first?
Photojournalists take on the role of quiet observer. Many photojournalists spend a substantial amount of time with their subjects to make their presence feel natural and to capture a subject’s true character. If a photojournalist were to interfere in an event, this standard of non-intervention is broken. We must determine in each case if our role is more important as documentarians or protectors of victims. We must prioritize whether to properly convey an event or message to the public with a photograph or act as a bystander who reacts swiftly to prevent more pain or violence to a victim.
Donna Ferrato, an experienced photojournalist, dedicated a significant portion of her career to documenting domestic violence. Ferrato wrote a book titled “I Am Unbeatable” that included photos from many different cases of domestic violence. In a feature done by The Guardian last year, Ferrato speaks about her experience and the battles she faces with her conscience.
“I was there first as a photographer, not as a social worker,” Ferrato said. “Yes, I would always be divided on whether to take a picture or defend the victim, but if I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman, I’d be helping just one woman. However, if I got the picture, I could help countless more.”
The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) created a list of guidelines for photojournalists to follow to maintain ethical reporting. This is what the NPPA asserts: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”
The recent Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent photo coverage are one example that I believe have an “overriding and justifiable need” for the public to see. The chaos, fear and tragic injuries caused by the bombings are essential elements to communicate to the public. This event raised questions of security, and many citizens across the country were affected.
Another consideration an editor has to make is whether the graphic content of some of these pictures, like the one shown here, should be printed in a paper distributed to families. We must ask ourselves if jarring and gruesome photos are necessary to convey the magnitude of a tragedy. The New York Daily News caught heat for altering a photo of a Boston Marathon bombing victim to make it less gruesome, yet many readers are outraged by photographs they deem “insensitive” published after tragedies. One Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer committed suicide after receiving so much heat for his picture of a child that was suffering from severe malnutrition.
There are no definite lines to draw when it comes to documenting tragedy in photojournalism. Each photographer must decide by his or her own standard how to react in a tragedy. Ultimately, as a photojournalist, you have to live with your conscience and decide what your priority will be in the wake of a tragedy.
_By Morgan Horton
Do you believe everything you read?
Public trust in the media has steadily fallen over the last decade. A recent Gallup poll showed that public trust in the media is slightly up in 2013 from last year’s all-time low, but still at a dismal 44 percent. Not even half of Americans believe what they are reading.
Part of that has to do with the negative connotation associated with journalists. When people think of the media, they often think of sites with strong biases like Fox and MSNBC. I tell people that I want to be a journalist and they tell me how annoying they think journalists are. A recent controversial opinion article in the Daily Nebraskan filled my Facebook and Twitter feeds with numerous “This is why I hate the DN!” updates.
When I thought of becoming a journalist I thought of changing the way people thought. I wanted to expose problems and get people to care about a particular topic. I wanted to provoke change. I thought journalists were supposed to be respected for their knowledge. But as recent polls show, most Americans don’t believe journalists have that wealth of knowledge.
Technology has provided a variety of resources for fact-checking and accuracy. When you type something into a Google search, numerous results convey all sorts of opinions. Data that previously took hours to scour is conveniently posted on a single website.
All of these things should allow reporters and editors to be absolutely precise and represent both sides of a story fully. But it’s almost become a joke how inaccurate some news sites are. A satirical article by The Onion mocked a student reporter’s success at getting right an astounding five whole sentences. Even a prominent paper like The New York Times has a significant number of corrections in each day’s paper. Some news organizations fail to correct all of their mistakes.
If a reader sees an error in a newspaper’s story, he or she will be less likely to trust anything else from that newspaper. Even a tiny error can make a reader think twice about whether he or she believes a controversial story is true.
Reporters and editors have the technology and resources to put together amazing news stories, and many of them do. But as newsroom cuts and 24-hour deadlines loom, some inaccuracies slip through the cracks. Most of the work journalists publish is fair and accurate. But it’s hard for the public to remember that when they notice a glaring error.
For the media to regain the public’s trust, it’s all about going back to that Journalism 101 class. Journalists and editors have learned from the beginning how to double-check all of their facts and put their biases aside when writing an article. NPR’s ethics handbook gives a checklist for its reporters and editors when they are working on a story to accomplish their ultimate purpose of “pursuing the truth.”
Journalists can only establish accuracy when they can begin to tell the full story.
_ Angela Hensel