Storytelling with Data:
Data journalism and 21st century literacy
25 February 2014

by tmartin on February 25, 2014

NATE SILVER STUNNED THE POLITICAL pundits in 2008 when he used statistics to correctly call the presidential election outcome in 49 of the 50 states – as well as predicting winners in all 35 US Senate races.

In short order, he was everywhere as an electoral and political analyst. The established players, with mouths gaping like goldfish, stammered but, but, he had no political background, no polling background, no journalism background…

He had data.

Big Data.

And the hard-core statistician tools to turn that data into a story.

Earlier this month, I went Out & About to Boston’s rechristened Innovation District (http://www.innovationdistrict.org) – aka, the South Boston waterfront – for a conversation about Big Data & the Future of Journalism.

The event was timely. Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com (http://www.fivethirtyeight.com), which recently moved from The New York Times to ESPN/ABC News, is in the process of a massive staff-up in anticipation of launching a new type of content site:

    Our idea is that the site’s mission will be defined by how we cover the news rather than what we cover. How will we cover the news? The new version of FiveThirtyEight will seek to apply the concept of data journalism on a wider scale.

Which of course has various industry experts asking: Is Data Journalism THE future of news?

The panel, hosted by MassInc, took place in the 75 Northern Ave District Hall, an achingly trendy-neo-urban-exposed-pipes-with-lots-of lime-green space. Tweeting abounded and a post-event reception featured hands on time with Google Glass.

Some 150 or so people settled in to hear what Dan Kennedy/ Northeastern University, Laura Amico /WBUR Learning Lab, John Bracken /The Knight Foundation, Charlie Kravetz /WBUR, and Paul McMorrow /CommonWealth Magazine had to say about Big Data.

I was primed and ready to learn … You see, those of us who cut our teeth in newspapers know that our skills make us dinosaurs today. That hiring gods want young, tech- and data-savvy types to create The Future – see the afore-mentioned FiveThirtyEight! The future, we’re told, is about people who can coax stories from databases rather than from shoe leather, a few drinks, a well-honed listening ear, and a network of human connections.

The Knight Foundation’s Bracken got the group off to a squirming start when he polled the room for advanced math degrees. Three hands shot into the air. The other 147 hands did not.

“In this field there’s a tendency to look at hard skills as magical unicorns” he said. The unicorns smiled. Everyone else laughed nervously, trading tweets and side comments about math-for-non-math-major classes.

The panel talked about the state of industry and its fear and fascination with these magical creatures. Data. Visualization. Statistical skills.

As they talked I began to hear other unspoken views, though. In a century which some have said will be dictated by design, I began to suspect that although the math majors might be the unicorns, the magical sparkle might come from the designers … and even then, it still takes a dollop of old fashioned journalism to turn that designed data eye candy into something meaningful.

The ability to mine data and develop usable information from it offers huge potential – if you’re a retail store (like Target say – http://www.capeeyes.com/2012/03/big-data/) or a policy wonk harnessing data to better run government (http://www.capeeyes.com/2012/11/gov-technology/).

In the content business, though, storytelling rules. In the public marketplace, where people have limited time and attention spans, storytelling brings the message home.

A big honking spreadsheet tells stories only to those who love to look at big honking spreadsheets. How many of you read your town budget for pleasure? Or download open data files from the US Census Bureau in your leisure time?

What I was hearing the panel say without saying it was that magic lies in the hands of those who create visualizations from data. In other word, picture people who make numbers into pretty things for the eye. Visual communicators. Visual journalists.

Everyone looked to the statisticians and their data as the source, but pointed to the designed end products as the examples.

As they talked, I flash-backed to an early MacWorld in Boston, the year the Apple team showed off video morphing and early digital video tools. One after another, the programmer-created demos showed things like: my face turning into my co-worker’s face … my face turning into Luke Skywalker’s face … my face turning into my dog’s face. OK, cool technology – but WHY? I mean, who cares?

At its heart, that is the essence of transformative journalism – not merely that something is or might be, but expressing how that fact matters to us, giving us context for the information and a hook to process it with.

At one point in the presentations, long time broadcast journalist and current WBUR General Manager Kravetz pointed out that maybe even visual magic might not be so magical all the time.

Journalists, he pointed out, have been using data for generations, tediously combing through the information by hand, looking for patterns that tell a story. The difference now lies in the tools – tools that give us the ability to combine different data sets to gain insights we might not have gotten before.

“It’s a shiny new tool looking for at things,” he said. “But …”

And went on to the caveats. He pointed to last summer’s widely shared infographic about income disparity in New York City as an example where data journalism didn’t exactly break new ground – it just re-stated what we already knew. Income inequality? In New York City? Really? (http://www.wired.com/design/2013/08/a-map-that-shows-the-inequality/).

“Both journalistic and visual knowledge are needed,” he said firmly.

Now I didn’t major in math – but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid about numbers or what you can do with them. The biggest math lesson I learned in statistics is that numbers are powerful … because you can use them to tell any story you want.

The fallacy of the magic unicorn lies in the equation numbers = truth. “The numbers are the numbers,” shrugs the accountant, as if numbers can’t lie.

Hah!

In communication every nuance matters. It isn’t just the numbers … but the numbers you select.

It isn’t just the numbers you select … but the visuals you use to present them.

It isn’t just the visuals … but the colors and text and placement, each of which delivers additional layers of meaning to the readers.

Word choice in titles, labels, and accompanying captions or articles further shapes the message – do the numbers show, shout, whisper, prove, suggest, discount? Are they expected, huge, gigantic, statistically insignificant?

Above all this lies context: Why should we even care?

Now don’t get me wrong. I like data journalism. I am fascinated by the trends and patterns you can see when you layer information together. It brings a new set of lenses for exploring the world around us.

I also love that public data from agencies like NOAA and the Census Bureau must now be open and available. If you like playing with data, look at Census’ Data Ferret: http://dataferrett.census.gov or its new mobile app: http://www.census.gov/mobile/

Mashups – that process of combining two or more different datasets to see what they reveal in combination – creates whole new ways to ask questions and examine trends. Really cool stuff! And powerful, too – for understanding your business, your community, and the world around you.

To some degree, data journalism is indeed the future of journalism …. but not because old journalism is old hat.

Data literacy – by which I mean the ability to find data, understand its source and validity, use data to explore or make decisions, and communicate data – forms a fundamental aspect of 21st century literacy on a larger scale.

Parsing printed words matters, but increasingly so does parsing data in both raw and visualized form.

The National Council of English Teachers (http://www.ncte.org) calls literacy:

    a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups.

I like that definition.

Being literate means knowing how to communicate, how to both create and consume messages to and from our society.

It encompasses “reading words” as well as using visuals and data – being fluent in all the communicative tools we wield in the 21st century.

Being a journalist means working those tools at a professional level.

Data journalism? Yup, it matters, right there alongside interviewing, writing, editing, ethical judgment, news sense, source credibility, imagery, and a host of other arrows that have become part of living in this, our established and no-longer new century.

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