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Digital Journalism Meets Data Science

By: 20 November 2013

In a digital world that has us all swimming in readily accessible data, one might be tempted to torture the familiar line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner into, “Data, data everywhere. Nor any drop of insight to drink.” The role of journalists, some argue, is to bring data based insights to the public attention in a meaningful way that establishes context, continuity, priority and in its highest moments, advance the civic good.

With increasing access to “big data” in digital form that allows journalistic stories to be researched and told in fundamentally new ways using digital and print media, it is very challenging to understand and visualize data accurately and tell the story effectively with new and emerging visualization tools. Lofty topics tackled by 250 members of the DC Data Community’s Data Viz group in its meeting last night hosted by The Washington Post and moderated by Frank Sesno, former CNN bureau chief and currently head of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.

The panel included Jeremy Bowers, NPR; Derek Willis, New York Times; Nikki Usher, George Washington University; and Kat Downs, The Washington Post.

Sesno posed the question to the panel, “what’s different about data journalism?” Willis replied that, “with access to streaming rivers of digital data and the tools to analyze and visually present compelling and informative representations of what the data mean, it changes journalism fundamentally in that rather than having to take snapshots of data presumed to be representative, the full data stream can be accessed and publicly shared.”

Willis cited a recent story by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel oneonatal screening as one example of excellence in data journalism. The way the story is told allows the reader to get an overview but also readers can drill down into specific data views that are meaningful to them. Kat Downs shared the example of The Washington Post story on “super zips” that used advanced digital mapping and other data visualizations to tell a compelling data story.

One issue with data journalism Bowers brought up was, “many people go into journalism programs because they don’t like math” and that limits success as a data journalist. Usher piped up by saying, “At George Washington University we teach our journalism students regression.” Sesno added that GWU is working on new executive education programs to bring these skills and new knowledge to practicing journalists, introducing John Dolan, new director of these programs.

Accessing available data and bringing stories to light via insightful analysis and visualizations in stories is compelling and important journalism the panel argued. Data can make the story local and personal. For example, Sesno gave the scenario of a story on American infrastructure. “You could do a story on aging bridges in America and show them on a map. The reader could zoom in on bridges they use and see what condition they are in. They could then click and see who is responsible for those bridges and how to contact them. That’s something data journalism can do that we never could before.”


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