Data Journalism! Do Nigerian Journalists Practice This?

Photo: Dailydatanews.com

The world is shifting fast into the deeper ends of the digital era. This has affected every aspect of life including journalism practice. Today, you don’t just talk about traditional journalism practice but a pen profession spiced up with data journalism. This is very essential in this era of ‘fake’ news described as the post truth era. Data journalism is the next best option for reliable news in today’s world. According to Helen DeLeon, “in a year of fake news, data journalism was more important than ever.” As one data journalist said to google: “data is a good way of getting to the truth of things… in this post-truth era, this work is increasingly important. we are all desperately searching for the facts.

At what stage are Nigerian journalists in the practice of this evolving profession? Are they still stuck with the traditional journalism practice or have they moved like the rest of the world to the sphere of data journalism practice? Well, you have to first understand what data journalism means in order to determine whether it is being practiced in your own vicinity. What is this concept of data journalism?

Data journalism is the process of news gathering and telling with digital information available in the information technology age. It is primarily empirical data-based reporting that combines data, graphics, sound, videos and words to tell the story. It is not a replacement for the traditional word journalism. It is a form of journalism that recognizes the sophistication of the world and the need to use facts, figures, and a wide range of information sourced through the internet and other means to make sense out of issues. This concept is a way of describing modern journalism in a digitized and sophisticated world.

Data journalism is also defined as a specialized form of journalism reflecting the increased role that numerical data is used in the production and distribution of information in the digital era. It reflects the increased interaction between content producers (journalist) and several other fields such as design, computer science and statistics.

A more acceptable and all-encompassing definition of this hot and trending new branch of journalism is given by, Mirko Lorenz, who described this data journalism as a “workflow where data is the basis for analysis, visualization and –most importantly- storytelling”, could be more accurate.

To better understand the relevance of this concept in today’s society, here is a collection of perceptions of leading practitioners and proponents of data journalism on why it is an important development in journalism practice. This compilation was posted on Data Journalism Handbook.

Why Is Data Journalism Important?

Filtering the Flow of Data

When information was scarce, most of our efforts were devoted to hunting and gathering. Now that information is abundant, processing is more important. We process at two levels: (1) analysis to bring sense and structure out of the never-ending flow of data and (2) presentation to get what’s important and relevant into the consumer’s head. Like science, data journalism discloses its methods and presents its findings in a way that can be verified by replication.

— Philip Meyer, Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

New Approaches to Storytelling

Data journalism is an umbrella term that, to my mind, encompasses an ever-growing set of tools, techniques and approaches to storytelling. It can include everything from traditional computer-assisted reporting (using data as a ‘source’) to the most cutting edge data visualization and news applications. The unifying goal is a journalistic one: providing information and analysis to help inform us all about important issues of the day.

— Aron Pilhofer, New York Times

Like Photo Journalism with a Laptop

‘Data journalism’ only differs from ‘words journalism’ in that we use a different kit. We all sniff out, report, and relate stories for a living. It’s like ‘photo journalism’; just swap the camera for a laptop.

— Brian Boyer, Chicago Tribune

Data Journalism is the Future

Data-driven journalism is the future. Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times. But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyze it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.

— Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web

 

Providing Independent Interpretations of Official Information

After the devastating earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear plants disaster in 2011, the importance of data journalism has been driven home to media people in Japan, a country which is generally lagging behind in digital journalism.

We were at a loss when the government and experts had no credible data about the damage. When officials hid SPEEDI data (predicted diffusion of radioactive materials) from the public, we were not prepared to decode it even if it were leaked. Volunteers began to collect radioactive data by using their own devices but we were not armed with the knowledge of statistics, interpolation, visualization and so on. Journalists need to have access to raw data, and to learn not to rely on official interpretations of it.

— Isao Matsunami, Chunichi/Tokyo Shimbun

Dealing with the Data Deluge

The challenges and opportunities presented by the digital revolution continue to disrupt journalism. In an age of information abundance, journalists and citizens alike all need better tools, whether we’re curating the samizdat of the 21st century in the Middle East, processing a late night data dump, or looking for the best way to visualise water quality for a nation of consumers. As we grapple with the consumption challenges presented by this deluge of data, new publishing platforms are also empowering everyone to gather and share data digitally, turning it into information. While reporters and editors have been the traditional vectors for information gathering and dissemination, the flattened information environment of 2012 now has news breaking first online, not on the news desk.

Around the globe, in fact, the bond between data and journalism is growing stronger. In an age of big data, the growing importance of data journalism lies in the ability of its practitioners to provide context, clarity and, perhaps most important, find truth in the expanding amount of digital content in the world. That doesn’t mean that the integrated media organizations of today don’t play a crucial role. Far from it. In the information age, journalists are needed more than ever to curate, verify, analyze and synthesise the wash of data. In that context, data journalism has profound importance for society.

Today, making sense of big data, particularly unstructured data, will be a central goal for data scientists around the world, whether they work in newsrooms, Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Notably, that goal will be substantially enabled by a growing set of common tools, whether they’re employed by government technologists opening Chicago, healthcare technologists or newsroom developers.

— Alex Howard, O’Reilly Media

Our Lives are Data

Good data journalism is hard, because good journalism is hard. It means figuring out how to get the data, how to understand it, and how to find the story. Sometimes there are dead ends, and sometimes there’s no great story. After all if it were just a matter of pressing the right button, it wouldn’t be journalism. But that’s what makes it worthwhile, and — in a world where our lives are increasingly data — essential for a free and fair society.

— Chris Taggart, OpenCorporates

A Way to Save Time

Journalists don’t have time to waste transcribing things by hand and messing around trying to get data out of PDFs, so learning a little bit of code, or knowing where to look for people who can help, is incredibly valuable.

One reporter from Folha de São Paulo was working with the local budget and called me to thank us for putting up the accounts of the municipality of São Paolo online (two days work from a single hacker!). He said he had been transcribing them by hand for the past three months, trying to build up a story. I also remember solving a ‘PDF issue’ for ‘Contas Abertas’, a parliamentary monitoring news organisation: 15 minutes and 15 lines of code solved a month’s worth of work.

— Pedro Markun, Transparência Hacker

An Essential Part of the Journalists’ Toolkit

I think it’s important to stress the “journalism” or reporting aspect of ‘data journalism’. The exercise should not be about just analyzing data or visualizing data for the sake of it, but to use it as a tool to get closer to the truth of what is going on in the world. I see the ability to be able to analyze and interpret data as an essential part of today’s journalists’ toolkit, rather than a separate discipline. Ultimately, it is all about good reporting, and telling stories in the most appropriate way.

Data journalism is another way to scrutinise the world and hold the powers that be to account. With an increasing amount of data available, now more than ever it is important that journalists are of aware of data journalism techniques. This should be a tool in the toolkit of any journalist: whether learning how to work with data directly, or collaborating with someone who can.

— Cynthia O’Murchu, Financial Times

Adapting to Changes in Our Information Environment

New digital technologies bring new ways of producing and disseminating knowledge in society. Data journalism can be understood as the media’s attempt to adapt and respond to the changes in our information environment — including more interactive, multi-dimensional story-telling, enabling readers to explore the sources underlying the news and encouraging them to participate in the process of creating and evaluating stories.

— César Viana, University of Goiás

A Way to See Things You Might Not Otherwise See

Some stories can only be understood and explained through analyzing — and sometimes visualizing — the data. Connections between powerful people or entities would go unrevealed, deaths caused by drug policies that would remain hidden, environmental policies that hurt our landscape would continue unabated. But each of the above was changed because of data that journalists have obtained, analyzed and provided to readers. The data can be as simple as a basic spreadsheet or a log of cell phone calls, or complex as school test scores or hospital infection data, but inside it all are stories worth telling.

— Cheryl Phillips, The Seattle Times

A Way To Tell Richer Stories

We can paint pictures of our entire lives with our digital trails. From what we consume and browse, to where and when we travel, to our musical preferences, our first loves, our children’s milestones, even our last wishes – it all can be tracked, digitised, stored in the cloud and disseminated. This universe of data can be surfaced to tell stories, answer questions and impart an understanding of life in ways that is currently surpassing even the most rigorous and careful reconstruction of anecdotes.

— Sarah Slobin, Wall Street Journal

(Source: Data Journalism Handbook)

Examples of Data Journalism Stories

According to Helen DeLeon, Here are five of the best data journalism stories from 2017 that exemplified this mission:

“Unfounded” – The Globe and Mail

In their full 2017 report on data journalism, Google listed this piece of data journalism as an example for stories that use data to investigate. In a 20-month investigation compiling policing data from over 870 police forces, The Globe found that one in every five sexual assault allegations in Canada is dismissed as “baseless and thus unfounded.” The national unfounded rate is 19.39%, which is dramatically higher than other crime.

This investigation made an impact not only with the data it shared, but how it personalized and illustrated the issue through victim stories, interactive graphics, scientific information and interviews of law enforcement. This story is part of a series of Globe investigations on how police handle sexual assault allegations.

“Race Behind Bars” – The New York Times

This article, published by the New York Times, doesn’t have fancy interactive graphics like some of the other articles featured, but it does use data to share an important story: the bias in how black prisoners are treated compared to white prisoners in an unbiased format.

While technically published in December 2016, this article was on the 2017 shortlist for “Investigation of the Year” by the Global Editors Network (GEN). The article uses data to portray a story not often told – most investigations focus on the “front end” of the prison system, not what happens after prisoners are locked up. The reporters examined prison records and interviewed inmates from facilities in different areas to create a comprehensive view of the unjust treatment of black prisoners.

“Fenced Out” – Washington Post

Another piece from the GEN 2017 shortlist, the second episode of Washington Post series, “Fenced Out,” combines data, graphics, sound, videos and words to tell the story of how Europe is counteracting the tidal wave of refugees fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria  by using border fences. The Post sent journalists to the borders to get behind the scenes of the refugee crisis and showcase multiple points of view alongside data to create the story.

The work is innovative, according to the GEN, because it “goes beyond the verticals or standalone visualizations to create a new format: immersive data storytelling.”

“If you’re black” – Tampa Bay Times

Another GEN shortlist pick and example of immersive data storytelling, this investigation from the Tampa Bay Times reviewed over 50,000 documents and found specific circumstances of racial breakdowns in police shootings: “unarmed, traffic stop, reaching but unarmed, running away, shot in the back, minor or no crime.”

“It Was Not Always the East” – Berliner Morgenpost

Google picked this German piece of data journalism as an example of stories that explain with data. The article was published before the federal election, showing how and why German Parliament is becoming more right-wing for the first time in decades. Combining interactive maps, videos, graphs and fact-checking, the article used data to show and predict the election results – the right wing did get more seats in Parliament.

(Source: Dailydatanews.com)

Having looked at the analysis above from rich articles on data journalism, you can figure out where journalists in Nigeria are, regarding this modern form of journalism.

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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