I Like it When You Call Me #BIGDATA

Initially, the phrase “data journalism” made me roll my eyes because technically all journalism should be “data journalism.” If reporters aren’t motivated by reporting facts, then what is nutritious about the news we consume? News organizations don’t function by throwing words up into the air until they fall down in grammatically comprehensible sentences. Instead, each word should be fact-checked (and quickly) to ensure that the public has accurate, up-to-the-minute information.

When trying to figure out what made this type of story so different, it took me a while to reach my “aha!” moment.  It turns out that I had been missing the point. Data journalism is unique in the fact that it flips the script on traditional news article. Wherein facts are typically used to back a narrative, those who work on data journalism pieces must pull the narrative out of a data set.

I have such a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who is capable of creating a beating pulse out of numbers. It’s an important yet sometimes thankless task. The creation of these stories has to be a labor of love. Each time a journalist transforms numbers into an easily understood graph, chart, or better yet into something that can be easily manipulated by readers – the public is better for it.

An excellent example that I have come across is “A full-text visualization of the Iraq War Logs.” This was authors Jonathan Stray and Julian Burgess way to use text-analytics techniques and algorithms to visually show clusters of keywords in the 391,832 SIGACT (or “Significant Action in the war) reports  on the Iraq war leaked by Wikileaks. The most useful example of data journalism was Nate Silver’s predictions on March Madness earlier this year. This article compares his projections with the outcomes.

The reason why I find data journalism to be so refreshing in today’s industry is because there’s typically no time or resources to invest in a long form story. This is not a reflection on journalists, but more a reflection on the attention span of the audience and the economic investment of news organizations. Consumers demand news as quickly as it happens and in a manner that fits comfortably on the screen of a smartphone.There’s very little focus on creating a narrative outside of editorial content. No one wants the full article when they can get the gist of the information through a tweet or from a post on Instagram.

As the industry evolves, the two types of news organizations that will succeed will either be those that are able to come up with innovative and concise ways to get information to the public or those that have the ability to invest the time it takes to roll up your sleeves and dive brain-first into a pile of numbers.


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