Stats and storytelling: Bringing data-driven journalism to life

Fred Vallance-Jones knows a lot of journalists got into the business with the hopes of avoiding the big M – Math. Does the growing trend of data journalism mean reporters are going to have to start crunching the numbers? “Data journalism seems intimidating, but it’s not a math thing!” Fred Vallance-Jones reassured a group of journalists at an Introduction to Data Journalism workshop during Newspapers Canada’s INK+BEYOND conference.

Using data as a source for stories has become more common and newsrooms are looking for people who understand the tools. Vallance-Jones, a professor at King’s College Journalism program, and David McKie, a reporter with CBC News, are two of the leading journalists in Canada working with data today. The two discussed how newspapers can amplify their storytelling capabilities by bringing data journalism projects on to their pages and websites.

“It’s about reading rows and columns,” continued Vallance-Jones. It’s as simple as taking some basic computer skills, like interpreting databases and spreadsheets, and applying them to journalism. Vallance-Jones and McKie both emphasized that data doesn’t need to be complicated. Instead, you need to think of it as another kind of source, albeit one that might speak in numbers or coordinates.

Data journalism also presents a unique opportunity for collaboration–with developers, graphic artists or even the public. Some data projects can be improved with crowd-sourced results via online polling tools or comments.

McKie rattled off a series of story ideas that had most of the journalists in the room rapidly taking down notes. “What kind of car is recalled the most? What’s the most dangerous drug? What government departments are increasing user fees? How many times have planes almost collided at your local airport?” Mckie asked the crowd. The answer to all of these questions can be answered by using data sets that are readily available online.

Vallance-Jones and McKie also provided a tool-kit for journalists interested in using data in their reporting, which includes:

  • Spreadsheet databases for compiling information. There are even free versions, like Google spreadsheets, that you can use and share.
  • GIS mapping programs for data crunching. Many journalists are familiar with Google Fusion, which will take data information and represent it on a map. Other popular tools are QGIS and Esri.
  • Visualization tools to communicate your findings. Programs like GeoFlow allow users to create 3D models from spreadsheet information.
  • Advanced tools such as scripts for “scraping” information from websites. Some data journalists will write programs with a simple scripting program, like Python, to pull large amounts of data off websites.

Though these tools are powerful and potentially transformative for journalists, Vallance-Jones and McKie are still clear that nothing will replace hitting the streets to find a story. “The bigger the story, the more shoe leather reporting you will have to do,” said McKie.

Like information from any source, you need to verify that it is correct. But once you’ve done that, the possibility for great stories is endless.