The ability to work with data, including how to scrape, interpret and visualise information, is a skill most newsrooms require of their journalists nowadays.
Some news organisations offer data journalism workshops as part of their staff training, but there are also many resources available online for reporters and freelancers looking to get started in what has started to be seen as a 'new normal' rather than a specialism in recent years.
Being comfortable with data analysis and data wrangling is also the starting point for journalists looking to explore interactive graphics, Aleksandra Wisniewska, interactive data journalist at The Financial Times, told Journalism.co.uk in a recent podcast.
"It's really important to remember that, these days, every digital journalist is sort of expected to be able to work with a readily available data set.
"What sets you apart is being able to come up with your own, original data set, whether by scraping or compiling it yourself over time, so this is definitely something I would recommend to newbies."
Wisniewska also advised spending some time browsing through the many interactives created on a daily basis by news organisations, to get a better understanding of the type of projects you would like to re-create for practice or work in the future.
"Interactive is usually the highest level of treatment a project can receive and whenever we get a pitch, we try to decide if that is the only treatment it can get to really tell the story well.
"Very often the answer is no, because a static chart can do a better job of explaining and make it more device-friendly and less demanding. It's a lot to ask of readers to interact with a page these days, so everything has to have a sense of purpose."
An interactive often requires the audience to scroll, click or provide an input to uncover new information in the story, so it is worth avoiding graphics that are too complex or that do not give people enough instructions. To avoid this, the FT tries to "make sure we have a narrative in the story that guides the reader and explains what is it that they are looking at, why it's important and what conclusions they can draw from it".
The FT's data team recently compiled and made public the Visual Vocabulary guide, used in the newsroom to determine which type of graphic is better suited for each story. It contains examples and pointers for how different charts can highlight certain relationships and elements in the data.
"Generally, you can take one of two approaches: one is to explain to the reader what the numbers mean, and the other is to let them explore on their own. Very often, it is best to explain first and let them explore later as an optional part of the story, rather than as the main big thing people look at when they land on the page.
"We also try to structure our pages in ways that go from top line to more granular level into the data, so for example for our EU referendum results page, we present the national results at the top and then go down from there to the local authority level, which ensures the reader doesn't feel lost or faced with what we call 'data dump'."
Beginners could also benefit from keeping an eye on industry updates from Storybench and Source, Knight-Mozilla's OpenNews community, she added, where journalists and developers share tutorials and insights into how data projects and interactives come to life.
"A very important factor in my learning process was that I read a lot of these articles about what it is that media organisations are experimenting with and what people are talking about online.
"This is where the learning process takes place, by scrutinising other people's work and being aware of the shortcomings of a project and why particular solutions were applied to a particular page or story."
At The Wall Street Journal, graphics editor Elliot Bentley pointed out technical knowledge definitely matters when developing interactives, but explained the Journal also places great emphasis on journalists' ability to craft good charts with any data, before they pick up more advanced skills.
"There's also the idea of distrusting your data. Unless it's coming from a really verified source, it's always important, especially when you're doing an original analysis of data, to be critical."
Although many newspapers still approach graphics as charts that accompany a story, he added, the Journal and other newsrooms have been moving towards interactives that "stand alone and tell a story in their own right, without tagging along with an article".
Bentley also advised developing graphics that will work on mobile first and desktop second, as the smaller screen and limited interaction options can help journalists determine whether their interactive is too complex or feels unnatural to the reader.
"On desktop, you can fill an article with lots of nice photos and little embeds, but I don't think that works quite as well on mobile because you can end up cluttering up a small screen and I think it loses some of the impact that a single graphic has on mobile.
"I would contend that the phrase 'interactive graphics' is actually limiting. It makes it sound like it needs to be something with buttons and input and click-y things, whereas actually some of the best graphics I've seen make use of elements like real-time data, infinite scrolling and other advantages the web has over a static JPEG," Bentley added.
For more tips on getting started with interactive graphics, listen to the full podcast with Wisniewska and Bentley.
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