Data is shaping and informing acts of journalism across virtually all newsrooms and reporting beats. It can be a tool for telling specific stories — as exemplified among established players such as The Guardian and newer entities such as FiveThirtyEight and — as well as an important source for editorial and resource-driven decision making.
But beyond discrete stories and strategies, data signifies a larger sea change in journalism.
For better or worse, this may have major implications for what has been described as the Four Es of big data and journalism: epistemology (what journalism knows), expertise (how journalism expresses that knowledge), economics (journalism's market value) and ethics (journalism’s social values). The data-related implications are therefore far-reaching — for how we teach, practice and research journalism.
We believe that, too often, the worlds of academia and news industry fail to recognise the potential that could come through greater collaboration between them. As both parties grapple with the possibilities afforded by datafication, we contend that closer relationships between journalists and academics could be mutually beneficial. Below we outline five starting points to explore:
More partnerships between classrooms and newsrooms
The work undertaken by Paul Bradshaw offers a clear indication of how to do this. As part of an MA in data journalism at Birmingham City University in the UK, Paul and his students have partnered with a number of news organisations, such as The Daily Telegraph, BBC, ITN, the Manchester Evening News, The Guardian and the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
To extend this teaching-based partnership to improve research, these news organisations could open up their data journalism processes to (participant) observation by ethnographers, with the expectation that such scholarship would lead not only to peer-reviewed academic publication but also to public-facing reports that are intended for industry — like the kind produced by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
Undertake classroom projects with potential news value
Jan Goodey, course director for MA in magazine journalism at Kingston University in west London, has also demonstrated the ability to turn class projects into tangible reporting, having identified some potential conflicts of interest in UK local government.
Their research — which included submitting, tracking and analysing 99 separate FOI requests — revealed that these bodies were investing pension funds in fracking companies, while at the same time also acting as arbiters for planning proposals submitted by this nascent industry.
In some cases, students and their professors may have a longer time horizon to explore data projects, thus allowing them to do forms of data journalism that are elusive for journalists overwhelmed by ceaseless daily deadlines.
Reverse-engineer these relationships
Given the resource challenges that most newsrooms face, journalists could more frequently approach students and academics with stories that could benefit from their help. Arizona State University’s Steve Doig, who won a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service at The Miami Herald, for a series which showed how weakened building codes and poor construction practices exacerbated damage caused by Hurricane Andrew a year before, actively consults on computer-assisted reporting problems.
He won the George Polk Award (2012) for Decoding Prime, an analysis of suspect hospital billing practices for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch. His is an advising and consultancy model — with faculty and potential student involvement — that others could emulate.
Open the door to researchers and independent critique
Journalists are known to rely on academics as frequent sources for news stories, but they are often less comfortable opening themselves up to academic scrutiny. Compounding this problem are increasingly strident organisational directives against taking surveys or speaking to researchers without permission from upper management.
But, just as journalists need good source material to do their work, for academics to do good research about journalism requires their having better access than they presently do. This is especially pertinent as researchers seek to understand what datafication means for journalism, for how journalists use metrics, they tell stories in new ways, and so on.
A little less defensiveness on the part of news organisations could go a long way towards developing a mutually beneficial relationship: researchers get better access to understanding how data fits in journalism, and in turn news organisations can gain independent evaluations of their work and thus better appraise, from a critical distance, how they are doing.
Ensure your research is accessible
On the flip side, academics could do much more to ensure the openness and accessibility of their work. By now, dozens of academic studies have been produced regarding the "datafication of journalism", with a particular emphasis on the evolution of tools for data storytelling and its impact on journalistic ethics and approaches.
These studies could have tremendous relevance for news organisations. But too often they are locked behind academic journal paygates, obscured by the overuse of jargon and altogether situated in such a way that makes it hard for journalists to access, let alone understand, the transferable lessons in this research.
Where possible, industry outreach and engagement could be an integral part of the publication process, so that the benefits of these insights resonate beyond the journals — such as through rewritten briefs or short explainers for trade-press venues, such as Nieman Journalism Lab, or websites designed to disseminate academic work to lay audiences, such as The Conversation.
This is an extract from "The Datafication of Journalism: Strategies for Data-Driven Storytelling and Industry—Academy Collaboration" a book chapter in The Data Journalism Handbook 2 edited by Liliana Bounegru and Jonathan Gray, and published by Amsterdam University Press. It has been republished with permission from the author.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers professor in journalism, a professor of practice, and an affiliate of the Department for Middle East and North Africa Studies (MENA), at the University of Oregon.
Seth Lewis is a professor and the founding holder of the Shirley Papé Chair in emerging media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, where he is also director of the journalism programme.