Data Journalism: Looking to the Numbers to Shape More Dynamic News Stories

Written by John Thomey

Published on September 26, 2016

In today’s hypercompetitive news world, public relations professionals, advertisers, and marketers are not the only communicators adopting the use of digital data to inform and convey insights. Traditional media outlets are using the abundance and scale of data available online to creatively tell stories that stand out and appeal to readers and validate their reporting. Data journalism, sometimes referred to as explainer journalism, is the use of data to either inform journalism or better tell a specific story (or both). Whether it’s using software to find connections and trends in specific documents, or incorporating interactive infographics and visuals that readers can understand more clearly, it’s bringing stories to life in new and engaging ways.

Data journalism is increasing in popularity, particularly with news sites like FiveThirtyEight and Vox using data as an overarching component in most, if not all, of their stories. Journalists have used data like crime and economic statistics to support reporting for some time. Today the sophistication and prevalence of the data journalists have access to has grown exponentially.

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So what does data journalism actually look like?

The Guardian effectively combined all aspects of data journalism during the 2013 coverage of Edward Snowden NSA leaking classified information from the NSA. Six months after the story broke, and as it continued to escalate, the publication created an interactive website, NSA Files: Decoded. The website helped clarify and deconstruct the implications of the NSA surveillance program for its readers through creative copy, a custom page layout, embedded video interviews, data visualizations and leaked document files. The ultimate output was a very compelling, human and multimedia exploration of a complex issue.

Journalists are applying publicly available digital data in a variety of ways to tell unique stories beyond the now abundant applications of data in major news coverage, like the 2016 presidential electionWalt Hickey from FiveThirtyEight, for example, wrote a piece helping readers design the ultimate workout playlist using trends and insights gleaned from music streaming service Spotify.  For sports fans, the Upshot created an interactive piece using the NYT 4th Down Bot highlighting ideal situations for a football team to go for it on fourth down instead of electing to punt to the opposing team.

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Journalism schools are even adapting their curriculums to prepare students for careers in data journalism—realizing that data is increasingly becoming an increasingly popular form of storytelling and reporting. Universities like Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Columbia and Stanford, offer programs and specializations like Computational Journalism.

Across the communications industry, the simple increased volume and access to data digitally, coupled with emerging ways to visualize it is changing approaches and formats rapidly. It’s a trend that’s enabling smarter, more effective storytellers across every specialization. It’s hard not to be excited to see where it leads the industry next.