Where Newsrooms Can Find Data Journalism Inspiration

No one likes to admit when they’re wrong, but that’s especially true when it comes to journalists.

The industry prides itself on objectivity, integrity and accuracy. It’s what helps reporters and editors maintain a high level of respect and credibility. However, journalists seem to be okay with being bad at one thing: math.

Math to journalists is what water is to cats: a bad reality no one wants to face. But more and more reporters are diving into the numbers, and readers are expecting to see data in journalism.

Take the Associated Press. In the past few years, the AP has beefed up its data presence for local reporters, especially when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests. In March, TechCrunch said the AP went a step further and entered a joint pilot program with Data.world to equip reporters with “granular, local data for more telling stories.”

This is great for everyone and easy for the AP, a wire service with what seems to be countless resources. However, what can small, local newsrooms that are already struggling to keep up with increasing demands do to make data more prevalent in their stories?

While hiring a whole team dedicated to data is, of course, preferable, many local newsrooms are managing big data projects with accessible tools that are relatively inexpensive or even free.

A self-taught skill

Because of journalists’ adversarial relationship with numbers, talented data reporters are in short supply. Some news outlets even compete for the best data journalists in the business.

Luckily, data journalism is something that, if given enough time, can be self-taught. For instance, many journalists look for to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), a program of the nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. NICAR is not just for a place to find open data sets, but also acts as a resource for reporters to learn how to use already existing data to build stories.

Many reporters know about certain data sets, but NICAR helps them make sense of what to do with this information and how to best use it for their beat. More municipal governments, such as the City of Chicago, are keeping data portals to track everything from public school admission rates to streetlight performance rates. NICAR has online workshops that help data reporters flesh out these ideas and turn them into valuable stories for their readers.

Google has become a proponent when it comes to training journalists in the art of data reporting. Google News Lab has tons of resources when it comes to data visualization (more on that in a bit) and cleaning data sets. Tap into Google trends to see what kind of searches hit Google, depending on the day or event.

An infographic is worth a thousand words

Data journalism is more than just collecting numbers. It’s about displaying those figures in a way that makes sense to your audience.

It’s become clear that a written description of your data is sure-fire way to have your readers’ eyes glaze over in boredom or confusion. Instead, more news organizations are finding ways to depict data in beautiful and easily digestible interactive infographics, maps and charts.

Websites like Infogram and Piktochart offer features so reporters can easily upload spreadsheets chockful of data and have it plotted out on interactive charts. Piktochart, as well as the simple yet efficient graphic website Canva, can be used for infographic designs that will colorfully depict intricate concepts with icons, pictures and even graphs.

While all these tools are popular, it seems when it comes to data visualization, the map is king. Think about this past presidential election. When I say electoral college what image pops up in your head? That’s right: a map of red and blue states.

Infogram and Piktochart allow you duplicate these kinds of maps. For example, say you wanted to chart unemployment rates by state. You would plug that into these infographic website and produce your own map of the United States with darker colors representing states with higher unemployment rates and lighter colors for lower rates. Some websites even let you think bigger, such as if you wanted to chart the best world economies based on countries’ gross domestic products.

Remember earlier when I mentioned Google and visualizations? One of its most powerful tools is its fusion tables, where you chart data on a map based on your own specific dimensions. Say you wanted to show how each county in New York state voted in a gubernatorial election. You can do that with fusion tables. Or if you wanted to show the poverty levels in each neighborhood in San Francisco. Fusion tables lets you do that, too.

Data visualization knows no bounds. While maps, charts and graphs have become commonplace in the industry, you can make any type of visualization you’d like as long as you think it will help your reader understand your story better.

If you’re interested to see how some professionals are doing great data journalism, check out FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ Upshot and ProPublica.

And journalists, please stop hiding behind your bad math skills as an excuse not to work with data. In the end, developing this muscle will make your newsroom stronger and build an appreciative audience.

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