numbers starting line
Credit: By LindsayEnsing on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Data skills are essential for any journalist nowadays, and if you're not so confident with numbers it's never too late to start learning.

From finding and interrogating data to the best tools to have at your disposal, independent journalist Sandra Fish shared advice for using numbers to enhance stories at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 Conference in Denver.

"Data can trigger hypotheses, it can disprove your hypothesis, but it always enhances a story that would otherwise be based on anecdotes," said Fish, who has worked for outlets including Al Jazeera America and Colorado Public Radio, an NPR member station.

Even census numbers have margins of error that may make certain findings unusableSandra Fish, previously of Al Jazeera and NPR
However, she warned that journalists should be prepared to put in the legwork to ensure the data they are reporting on is accurate, and that they are interpreting it accurately.

"Obtaining, cleaning, analysing the data is like 80 per cent of the work," she said.

"The visualising is really fun to do, but it doesn't take nearly as long as getting the data [and] figuring out if it's correct."

Below are some of her tips for journalists to find stories in figures.

Know where to find data

"The government is often the best source, although their data is not always perfect by any means," said Fish.

Other good data sources are academics, think tanks and research organisations such as Pew, all of which often collect vast amounts of information in their studies,

Fish also cited Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which has a data library where you can obtain information, although not all of it is available for free.

And this extract from last year's 'Data Journalism: Mapping the future' details all kinds of data sources for the UK and wider world.

Know your sources

In any instance where journalists are working with data, it's important to be mindful that the numbers may have been groomed, whether intentionally or not.

"Even census numbers have margins of error that may make certain findings unusable," Fish pointed out.

"If you get something from an independent, non-partisan think tank, do your research on who these people are and where their data came from," she continued.

It is not uncommon for some organisations to take government data and "cherry-pick" portions of it to suit their own means, she said. 

Similarly, journalists should always ask who is funding an academic's research before using the information.

Interrogate the data

After cleaning data sheets, Fish recommends journalists spend enough time "interviewing" the numbers to make sure the information is accurate.

When you've got an individual example in your data that you're going to use in a story, you need to check it outSandra Fish, previously of Al Jazeera and NPR
"Do you have the right number of records? Are there duplicates in there? Are the fields correct?" she asked.

Another way to search for "outliers" – figures which don't fit the pattern of the rest of data and which may be indicative of errors – is to graph the data. Fish recommends sorting the numbers from high to low and also finding averages and medians to look for things that seem out of place.

Journalists can also use mapping to check for outyling figures, and locate where things are happening more often than others.

Both outliers and clusters of data points could potentially serve as the starting point for a story, so long as the journalists is sure the data is correct.

"When you've got an individual example in your data that you're going to use in a story, you need to check it out," advised Fish.

"Go back to the original records and make sure it's correct in the data, because it isn't always. And go back to the source with your questions and findings."

Useful tools for managing data

For analysing and interrogating data, Fish recommended Excel, Google Spreadsheets and Google Maps.

She also cited Tableau and Datawrapper as excellent sites for creating interactive and embeddable data visualisations.

See's recent guide on using Tableau Public to visualise stories in data.

In terms of resources for learning more about working with data, Fish praised the The Data Journalism Handbook, available as a free eBook, which includes input from international news outlets including the BBC, the New York Times and Deutsche Welle.

She also suggested taking a statistics class in your interest area, or taking a geography class and in order to learn how to map.

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