The following is an extract from Data journalism: Inside the global future, edited by Tom Felle, John Mair and Damian Radcliffe, published with permission. This chapter is written by Zara Rahman, researcher and writer based on Berlin – find her on Twitter @zararah.
The rise of data-driven journalism is relatively well-charted. Major newsrooms all around the world boast ‘data journalists’, ‘journo-coders’, or major graphics and design departments.
But how does this change in the way stories can be found and put together integrate within the traditional newsroom? A major cultural shift in how those working in a newsroom perceive technology is necessary to successfully integrate data-driven storytelling into a newsroom’s repertoire.
So you have a data team – now what?
Earlier this year, I attended the International Journalism Festival (IJF) in Perugia, Italy. School of Data, in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre, have been running the data journalism track of the IJF for the past four years, and similar to previous years, the sessions were popular among those wanting to boost their data skills.
But it felt like the community weren’t there so much to hear technical explanations of how to use certain tools in their reporting, or how to tell their first data-driven story. Conversations centred more on what comes next. Once the data team have been hired (under whatever label) – how do these newcomers to the newsroom actually support better journalism?
The step of truly integrating technical approaches together with what might be known as more ‘traditional’ journalism is the one that seems to be causing the most hurdles.New workflows are needed, new forms of collaboration, and, in a way, new sets of values around what makes ‘good’ journalism.Zara Rahman
Put more simply: it is asking a set of people who have a completely different skillset to ones that are usually found in a newsroom to enter this challenging environment, and somehow integrate with their peers. New workflows are needed, new forms of collaboration, and, in a way, new sets of values around what makes ‘good’ journalism.
In traditional journalism courses, data skills have not been taught, and this means that most (but by no means all) journalists have relatively low levels of data literacy. This is changing; more and more universities, especially those in the US, have been starting to have dedicated courses on ‘computational journalism’, or computer-assisted reporting, for example.
One of the most fundamental issues that arises with those with low levels of data literacy is not knowing what is possible – and this lack of understanding of how data-driven approaches can complement or support work naturally presents some communications issues.
Sometimes this can be in terms of technical requirements given that are wildly unrealistic, or people not knowing what to actually ask for when making technical requests.
In all respects realistic expectations need to be set for what different people with varying skill sets can and can’t do. Giving someone a big dataset and asking them to ‘find a story’ might be fruitful, or it might take a long time, and have very little outcome.
Equally, a dataset needs to be in a certain state before it can be analysed, and depending on its size, this can take a long time. On both sides of the equation, what might seem to be a small task can take a frustratingly long time, and understanding and being prepared for this can be a big help.
Journalists who code, or coders who tell stories?
Building a team with a diverse set of skills and perspectives can be a huge boost to supporting new forms of storytelling. People with high levels of technical understanding may well not be the best people to communicate a story that they have found – and this is where the ‘traditional’ journalists come in.
Similarly, someone with a low level of data literacy is unlikely to be the most efficient person to gain insights from a large dataset, even though they might be willing to learn. Pairing up these varying personas – a storyteller and an analyst for example – can bring new perspectives to a story.
Finding people who are accustomed to working with people from different backgrounds to their own might facilitate this process, indicating that they are more accustomed to working with people not like themselves; just another reason for building a diverse team.
There has been a big rise in recent years of initiatives aimed at teaching journalists how to code or use data more effectively in their work, but alongside this, effective collaborations between those with strong writing and storytelling skills and those with coders or data analysts are also needed.Data journalists are not simply the IT department or the system administrators with a different name, but that they are peers in the field of journalism.Zara Rahman
There seem to be a few common trends among successfully integrated teams. Firstly, an acknowledgement at all levels within the newsroom that technical literacy and technical skills can open the door to new forms of storytelling.
This could manifest itself in ways such as the data team being invited to regular editorial meetings, just as the ‘traditional’ journalists are – or even in the way that they are referred to, with ‘journalist’ in their job title.
Secondly, newsroom managers need to recognise that the data journalists aren’t there to solve everyday technical issues, even though their technical know-how might mean that they are able to.
Respecting the diversity of skills that lie within digital technologies is crucial for many reasons. For the data journalist or team in question, it gives them the time and space they need to do the job they signed up to do – telling stories with data.
For their peers, it can send a clear signal that the data journalists are not simply the IT department or the system administrators with a different name, but that they are peers in the field of journalism. Knowing that they are there to go to with ideas or questions can (and should) bring up all sorts of collaborations that can make a story that much stronger.
Thirdly, news organisations need to prioritise communication, and understand that it might not be that easy. For those who aren’t sure what benefits data- driven journalism could bring to a story they are working on, flagging it up as early as possible with the data or graphics team leaves space for new approaches to the story.
For those with technical skills, sharing knowledge can be a good way of flagging to colleagues areas that they are interested in, as well as bringing the broader benefit of boosting data literacy across the newsroom.
Avoiding jargon in communication can be important too, and providing spaces where questions are welcomed rather than seen as a sign of a lack of knowledge. One example of this can be seen in the regular ‘learning lunches’ that Noah Veltman, a developer placed within the BBC for a year as part of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellowship, held on a regular basis. His colleagues were invited to drop in and learn about technical topics.
Getting some help from the outside
Relying on all of these changes to be internal can be hard, though, and this has been recognised on a number of external levels. One common way of boosting a newsroom’s technical literacy, especially with regards to data-driven stories, has been through fellowships.Even the most technically skilled individuals in the world aren’t going to be able to make a difference in a newsroom if their work isn’t valued within the newsroom culture.Zara Rahman
Typically, fellowships provide funding for an individual (or a number of individuals) to work in an environment they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – and vice versa. It puts someone into a workplace environment unused to their set of skills.
If the ‘unicorns’ in a newsroom are struggling to do the job they signed up to do, encouraging them to spend time with others in similar positions in other newsrooms can provide a strong sense of community that will undoubtedly help address theses issues.
Similarly, providing a space where journalists who have not been exposed to so many data-driven stories can go and meet the people behind successful collaborations might also provide inspiration for their work.
It’s not the technology, it’s the people
On a more general level, there needs to be a basic understanding that what we’re moving towards here is a major cultural shift in the way that journalism has been done. Though the inherent goal of journalism has stayed the same, the methods have changed.
This means that people with different skillsets and areas of expertise are coming to the sector, and that the sector (and those in it) need to adjust to welcome and really integrate them into the storytelling process.
Even the most technically skilled individuals in the world aren’t going to be able to make a difference in a newsroom if their work isn’t valued within the newsroom culture. Data journalism is made up of a diverse set of skills, from expert designers, to statisticians, to coders and more.
We’re beyond the point at which someone can be labelled as ‘technical’ and tasked with ‘technology’ in the newsroom. We need to recognise that there are varying levels of technological and data-related skills needed for any newsroom to keep up in the digital world, and embrace those changes.
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