"The first splash on the Manchester Guardian was a data journalism story," David Ottewell, head of data journalism for Trinity Mirror Regionals, told attendees at the Media Society's data journalism discussion at the Adam Street Club in London this week.
The story involved looking at the number of schools in the area and finding how much access the region's poor had to education, and was given as an example of some of the misconceptions that can be made around data journalism. Namely that it is a difficult, complicated area far removed from traditional journalism.
"It's not niche," continued Ottewell, "but there's a tendency to see data journalists as a different species. We're not."
Ottewell was joined by Martin Stabe, head of interactive news at the Financial Times, and Jacqui Taylor, chief executive of Flying Binary Ltd, a web science company that works with open data.
"There's a tendency to mystify or fetishise data," said Stabe, a tendency he saw as unnecessary when the real nature of data is much simpler.
"It's a digital representation of some kind of document," he said, "that records some kind of transaction – a parking ticket, a census return – that is now stored in a digital format."
The vast majority of modern transactions are made electronically, Stabe said, so "if you want to analyse these things, to spot patterns, the only way is to do it in electronic form".
Other industries understand this he said, and many roles that used to be based on "experience and intuition" are now based on analytics and the "quantative analysis of datasets".
When every industry now has access to the computing power to analyse data that could give them a leading edge in business, journalists need to be able to analyse the same data to find the truth, Stabe said, for the public interest.
"Journalists are starting to be intellectually outgunned by other industries," he said, "and if we don't keep up we will be at the mercy of the PR machine."
As such, large organisations like the New York Times are hiring "PhD level" statisticians, said Stabe, while the Wall Street Journal has been advertising a "newsroom programmer/multimedia editor" role with a long list of technical experience deemed necessary for the job.
Neither Stabe nor Ottewell have a background in statistics, however, having studied politics and philosophy respectively, and both acquired their data journalism skills independently.
"The single most valuable course I took was introductory statistics for social sciences," said Stabe.
Rather than expecting data journalists to join the newsroom from a statistics background, the panel agreed that the skills necessary to do the job are not hard to acquire and "all" journalists should familiarise themselves with the process.
With an additional 5.2 billion people set to join the web in the near future, said Taylor, English will no longer be the predominant language on the internet. Data will be a universal language.
"There's a huge opportunity but it will require huge adaptations to bring this numeracy to bear on the wider industry," she said.
Equally important though, said Ottewell, is that very few members of the public would be interested in reading an "unvarnished" data journalism story so traditional journalism skills will always be necessary in finding and telling the stories.
Where data journalists might be very good at finding the "what" of a story they need to be aware of the "why", he said, and that is where collaboration and communication in the newsroom can lead to the best results.
As an example, he pointed to a data story by the Manchester Evening News reporting that there were 10,000 instances of runaway children in Manchester each year. This was picked up by an investigative reporter who found that more than half the children were running away from care homes.
After a string of case studies and persistent pressure from the Manchester Evening News, the issue was picked up by Stockport MP Ann Coffey and changes to the national missing persons policy were debated in Parliament.
Some specific skills and academic practices may be necessary for highly complex or specialised roles but the basics will help journalists find more stories and tell them better, agreed the panel.
"Just as every journalists needs to know how to write, every journalist needs to be familiar with what data journalism can do for them, even if they don't do it themselves," Ottewell said.
More information on getting started in data journalism is available around the Journalism.co.uk website, including a podcast and a collection of 'sources and tools for data journalism', originally published in Data Journalism: Mapping the Future, republished with kind permission.
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