Data journalism problems in Europe: change the culture, not the technology

22 April 2015

Last week, I attended the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. It was beautiful, and in many ways, surprising.

With my usual work, I spend most of my time thinking about how civil society and journalists can use data more effectively in their work, and the problems that we come up against are things like:

  • Not having enough data (eg. it doesn’t exist, it’s not online, no access to it)
  • Not having access to the right technologies (tools behind a paywall, open source tools might not do the trick)
  • Not having good enough access to internet, or no access at all - or, audiences having low levels of connectivity
  • Being in restrictive political environments with low levels of press freedom
  • Keeping safe online

But in Perugia, the problems mentioned were largely very different. The hurdles facing data journalism here aren’t related to technology, they’re related to culture.

European problems

It’s called the International Journalism Festival, but the very large majority of the participants were from Europe. The problems that people seemed to be talking about in Perugia regarding data journalism, and actually getting stuff done, differed somewhat upon their roles in the newsroom. I find these issues around culture and technology fascinating, so I tried to talk to as many people as possible about it, and here - summed up in a few, generic user profiles - is what I learned.

“Traditional” Journalists

Profile: You’re a journalist who can’t code, and you don’t work with quantitative data in significant ways. You might have studied journalism, or have been working in journalism for a long time. For you, writing skills and investigative offline skills are the most important qualities for a journalist.

Problem: You’re not sure how to interact with coders in the newsroom, and you’re not sure you really see the point of doing so. Isn’t it enough to give them a few days notice that a graphic is needed for a story? It would be great to have a diagram to illustrate a certain point in the story, so that’s good- but how else could a coder help in telling a long narrative story, or in getting interviews from people?

What you can do: If there are coders or data journalists in your newsroom, tell them about what you’re working on really early on. They’ll still need your help to tell the story - they bring the data, you bring the journalism and storytelling skills- and together, you might be able to tell a whole new story in a whole new way. It’s not just about creating a pretty graphic to illustrate the story (though, in general, try to use graphics instead of stock photos!). Eva Constantaras did a brilliant session on using data in breaking news stories, in which she outlined how even in time-pressured situations, a new angle might be found by looking at data.

Try to get to know what the coders can do - ask them what their favourite data driven stories are, find out what kinds of skills they have. Some might be excellent graphics designers, and others might have incredible statistics skills. Either way, it’s up to you to get to know their skillset, and make space for them to support your work.

Editors

Profile: OK, so you’ve got your data journalists in your newsroom, alongside your regular journalists. You’re aware that your newsroom needs to start telling better data-driven, or data-informed, stories - that’s why you got the technologists in there.

Problem: You’ve noticed the news nerds/data journalists/coders aren’t integrating that well in the newsroom, but you’re pretty busy. What are the lightweight changes you can make, to help this?

What you can do: Invite the data journalists to editorial meetings, and treat them just as you would other journalists. Don’t give them tasks to do that have nothing to do with the reason that you hired them, even though thanks to their levels of technical literacy, they could probably do them pretty well - like fixing websites, for example. Give them job titles (and job descriptions) - that accurately represent what you want them to do - ‘data journalist’, ‘graphics editor’ for example, and encourage them to put their bylines on stories that they’ve contributed to in significant ways.

Our of the 14 most visited stories on the New York Times last year, 6 of them had a heavy visual component. You know that you need to integrate visuals into your stories, and the journalists who have a high level of coding and data literacy, are going to be the ones who can do that for you. Value those unicorns!

Data journalists/unicorns/coders/news nerds

Profile: Whatever you call yourself, you can code, you understand how to work with data, and you have a well-used Github account. You probably started off as a coder who realised journalism is valuable, or (less frequent) as a journalist, who realised coding is valuable, and now, you want to start telling those stories yourself, supported by your data skills.

Problem: You’re not sure where to start. You might be given routine technical tasks, rather than asked to get involved in data driven stories, and you say yes because there’s nobody else to do them, even though you were hired for something else. You’re sure you can do the ‘data’ part, but you need some help in the ‘story’ part of data journalism.

What you can do: Let people in your newsroom know what you can do. Introduce people gently to your skillset, and avoid technical jargon! Run a weekly Learning Lunch like Noah did at the BBC, where people can drop in and learn about technical topics that they might have heard about, but never have had a chance to learn about.

Like it or not, your job partly internal advocacy, and skill sharing. Before others in your newsroom will come to you with a story idea, they need to understand what you can do - and to do that, they need to boost their technical literacy, with your help! Make it clear that you’re open for questions, that you’re willing to help them on stories - maybe with a standard daily ‘office hour’ where anyone can drop in and ask for your help, for example.

Conclusion (and disclaimer)

I’m personally none of the above profiles, but I do like the role of trying to work out what people’s needs and problems are in the context of technology and journalism, or activism. Of course, there were other problems mentioned at the festival, but these are the most prominent ones I heard regarding data journalism and newsroom culture.

Any other tips to add? Let me know!


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