Data journalism and academia: friend or foe?

Mona Chalabi, Data Journalist, formerly the Guardian, ‘Data journalism and academia: friend or foe?’ RISJ seminar on 26 February 2014

Kirsi Hakaniemi writes:

 “Data journalism is research in quick time. But to compared to academic research and writing, data journalism is characterized by its transparency as the whole process from the data collection to the final journalistic story can be open to the readers to check, correct and comment,” says Mona Chalabi, previously a data journalist at the Guardian, but now working at the FiveThirtyEight website founded by American statistician and author Nate Silver.

Transparency also gives data journalism its strength, as the readers can find stories by themselves based on their own interests, when they go through the data. That is why it is important for the data journalists to be transparent especially on what they don’t know and where they are unsure.

Data journalism uses statistical analysis, data mining, programming, data visualization and other methods to produce news stories. Chalabi says that a good data journalist is familiar with numbers, doesn’t get intimidated with the confusing data, and knows how to produce graphics, interpret them and write stories from them.

“Especially in developing countries when the authorities don’t produce the statistics or even don’t want to, it’s important to become number literate,” Chalabi emphasizes.

She says data journalism is not a new invention - actually many of the most used basic data visualization tools and charts are really old.  For example, Florence Nightingale’s hospital records from 1855 are a good example of data journalism.

Nightingale kept records of the large number of deaths due to the poor sanitary conditions in the hospital where she worked during the Crimean war, and showed by this method the importance of poor sanitary conditions as a driver of illness.

The most important tool for a data journalist is to learn how to use Excel efficiently and how to produce different kinds of charts. Other basic tools are Google maps for locating places and the Datawrapper for producing charts. According to Chalabi, there are plenty of resources in the Internet for learning how to do data journalism.  Just searching from Google and Youtube provides a variety of videos, podcasts and blogs about the subject.

Practicing data journalism doesn’t mean that there won’t be any need for traditional journalistic working methods anymore.  After the data journalist has gone through the statistics, there is often still a need to pick up the phone and call an expert, who can then explain the phenomenon lying behind the numbers.