Data has been at the core of some of the biggest stories broken in the past few years, including Panama Papers, the biggest leak in the history of journalism so far.

The amount of information available to journalists online nowadays enables them to uncover stories in the public interest that would otherwise remain buried.

But even reporters with strong data scraping and visualisation skills can face some challenges along the way that can leave them in hot water, panellists explained during the Big Data: Dangers of Journalism's New Frontline session at the 2016 Kurt Schork Awards held in London last week (27 October).

Here's what they advised journalists to bear in mind when working with data:

Be aware of 'smokescreen data'

A lot of the data that comes into the hands of journalists is highly confidential, so how can they ensure it can be used and determine that it's not fraudulent in some way?

Helena Bengtsson, editor for data projects at the Guardian, explained that it is vitally important for journalists to do all they can to verify their data before jumping to any conclusions.

When working on the Panama Papers, Bengtsson spent a long time comparing various reports with other sources and public information to make sure the details were solid, before contacting each of the subjects they were writing about.

If the data doesn't allow you to come to a conclusion, don't accept that you have one just because someone sent it to youTom Bergin, Reuters

"I don't know how many letters we sent, but there were over a thousand before we published Panama Papers from the Guardian, just to make sure we were right," she said.

"My biggest fear is that among the genuine data, somebody would put in one or two documents that are false – that's always the scare, but we try to check every detail as much as possible."

When verifying facts and figures, she highlighted the importance of asking for data through the Freedom of Information Act rather than simply settling for open data sets, noting that the more information a journalist can get to back up their story the better.

Tom Bergin, investigative journalist at Reuters, who has used multiple sets of data to expose those committing fraud and tax evasion, agreed, explaining that reporters often receive very partial information that only tell half a story.

"If the data doesn't allow you to come to a conclusion, don't accept that you have one just because someone sent it to you," he said.

Interpret the data correctly

Data can be difficult to clean and make sense of, so how can reporters ensure they are interpreting it in the right way?

"The problem with data is that it's complicated and sometimes you're making a few jumps, so there is a degree of interpretation and understanding that's required," Bergin said.

"If you're using data to build up a picture of a system that you're going to depict and, in the process, accuse people with a lot of money and power of wrong-doing, you're not going to be hitting the button on that without feeling any butterflies in your stomach."

Bergin noted that there's always a danger for the news organisations themselves, who can face repercussions as a result of incorrect interpretations of data being published, or false accusations.

"It is vitally important to make sure that you have your facts right, while ensuring the company is okay with you making these statements," he added.

Bengtsson agreed, explaining that although journalists should trust their professional instinct, there are experts in many different areas and specialisms that can be consulted to help reporters find the story in the data.

Every row in a database is a person, a place or a company, and I have to ask questions, listen to the answers and find new databases to contradict the data and find the truthHelena Bengtsson, the Guardian

"The dangers are there if you don't consult the experts, talk to people or have a colleague check what you're doing. When I do my analysis, I pair up with reporters and we collaborate together," she said.

"I look upon my spreadsheets and databases as interviewees – every row in a database is a person, a place or a company, and I have to ask questions, listen to the answers and find new databases to contradict the data and find the truth.

"I have never done a story without talking to the people who have put together the data set to make sure that I have interpreted it right – you always worry, but you check and you check again. If I stopped worrying, I'd be worried."

Iona Craig, freelance journalist, explained that this is especially important when journalists are new to working with data.

"It's scary initially, but without data, it would sometimes be hard to get stories to stand up," she said.

"I feel that [analysing data] with a single pair of eyes, when I'm not that experienced in dealing with data, isn't wise."

Look outside of the data sets

Although data can help journalists find stories without necessarily talking to anyone, the journalists on the panel agreed that this shouldn't be where their story ends.

"You can see a trend, and it might look interesting but it is the story behind that, and the intention behind it, which is often interesting," Bergin said.

"Last year, I did a story on the big investment banks not paying any tax, which was interesting, but I needed to show why they don't pay tax, which was the driver behind it – you're converting something really complicated into something really simple."

Bengtsson pointed out that data journalists must ensure they are reporting on data stories just as they would any other story, using their skills to interview sources and give a human element to the piece.

"You still have to send reporters out, the story doesn't end with a spreadsheet – that's bad data journalism, and it's boring when you see a story with just numbers and no people," said Bengtsson.

"Data gives us a starting point, and helps us find stories, but we can't stop there – we have to do the reporting as well."

"I'm not too fond of the fact that a lot of people think that I work in a special genre. When I started, it was called 'computer-assisted reporting', but we never talk about telephone-assisted reporting, even though we do this everyday – the computer is just one tool in the tool box."

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