I’ve mentioned before how few newspapers have taken up the possibilities offered by data journalism. Recently I’ve been wondering why that might be, and have thought up a list of a few potential reasons. Let me know what you think of them!
It’s a new skill
People – and maybe particularly grumpy hacks – are often resistant to new things. Especially if you have to suffer the humiliation of fresh young things several decades younger than you who know it all already looking at you pitifully as you go to the ‘edit’ menu to copy and paste.
It’s an extra skill
Journalists are often overworked and have more tasks than ever before, whether that’s writing more stories a day or being expected to ‘engage’ with their audience. So perhaps some of the reticence at being asked to do something completely foreign to them is simply a case of overwork. It doesn’t replace any existing skill they have, or make their lives much easier.
It’s not ‘real’ reporting
Maybe because of the resistance to it discussed above, it can be tempting for some journalists to dismiss data journalism as just for geeks. After all, you can do it without talking to anyone at all, in a darkened room in front of a computer screen.
But data journalism lets you tell new stories, such as mapping the patterns of prescriptions of anti-depressants. Or it allows you to present ‘classic’ stories in new ways, as the LA Times showed with its map of the Japanese earthquake. And isn’t that what journalism’s all about?
It takes time
So you’ve learnt the basics, and you’ve convinced your editor data journalism isn’t just for geeks. But now comes the analysis – and that can be time-consuming. You might need to clean the data to make it usable, and while there are some tools like Google Refine that help with this, it can still be a pain. Then comes the analysis itself. Although much of the basic analysis doesn’t take long, doing anything further can take up a lot of time. For example, you might want to write Excel formulae to work out particular things, and unless you’re good with it there can be plenty of trial and error involved. So it can take time to do the analysis itself…
There’s plenty of scope for error
…and to get it right. Many journalists aren’t too good with numbers, so it’s important to check that your maths is right. It’s also important to make sure that your results are valid. Sure, you could knock up a story using incomplete or flawed data, or use dodgy techniques to make a story look more shocking than it perhaps is. It might look superficially decent to many readers, but wouldn’t actually tell them anything of use. And is that what you went into journalism for? No. You’ve got a new tool, and you can do new and exciting things with it – but you’ve still got the same responsibilities.