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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

So You Want to be a Data Journalist? Current Opportunities

Every so often I do a round up of job openings in different areas. This is particular true around year end, as I look at my dwindling salary (no more increments, ever, and no hope of promotion, …) and my overall lack of direction, and try to come up with sort sort of resolution to play with during the first few weeks of the year.

The data journalism phrase has being around for some time now (was it really three and half years ago since Data Driven Journalism Round Table at the European Journalism Centre? (FFS, what have I been doing for the last three years?!:-( and it seems to be maturing a little. We’ve had the period of shiny, shiny web apps requiring multiskilled development teams and designers working with the hacks to produce often confusing and wtf am I supposed to be doing now?! interactives and things seem to be becoming a little more embedded… Perhaps…

My reading (as an outsider) is that there is now more of a move towards developing some sort of data skillbase that allows journalists to do “investigative” sorts of things with data, often using very small data sets or concise summary datasets. To complement this, there seems to be some sort of hope that visually appealing charts can be used to hook eyeballs into a story (rather than pushing eyeballs away) – Trinity Mirror’s Ampp3d (as led by Martin Belam) is a good example of this, as is the increasing(?) use of the DataWrapper library.

From working with the School of Data, as well as a couple of bits of data journalism not-really-training with some of the big news groups, I’ve come to realise there is probably some really basic, foundational work to be done in the way people think (or don’t think) about data. For example, I don’t believe that people in general read charts. I think they may glance at them, but they don’t try to read them. They have no idea what story they tell. Given a line chart that plots some figure over time. How many people ride the line to get a feel for how it really changed?

Hans Rosling famously brings data alive with his narrative commentary around animated development data charts, including bar charts…

But if you watch the video with the sound off, or just look at the final chart, do you have the feeling of being told the same story? Can you even retell yourself the story by looking at the chart. And how about if you look at another bar chart? Can you use any of Hans Rosling’s narrative or rhetorical tricks to help you read through those?

(The rhetoric of data (and the malevolent arts of persuasion) is something I want to ponder in more depth next year, along with the notion of data aesthetics and the theory of forms given a data twist.)

Another great example of narrated data storytelling comes from Kurt Vonnegut as he describes the shapes of stories:

Is that how you read a line chart when you see one?

One thing about the data narration technique is that it is based around the construction of a data trace. There is a sense of anticipation about where the line will go next, and uncertainty as to what sort of event will cause the line to move one way or another. Looking back at a completed data chart, what points do we pick from it that we want to use as events in our narration or reading of it? (The lines just connect the points – they are processional in the way they move us from one point of interest to the next, although the gradient of the line may provide us with ideas for embellishing or decorating the story a little.)

It’s important to make art because the people that get the most out of art are the ones that make it. It’s not … You know there’s this idea that you go to a wonderful art gallery and it’s good for you and it makes you a better person and it informs your soul, but actually the person who’s getting the most out of any artistic activity is the person who makes it because they’re sort of expressing themselves and enjoying it, and they’re in the zone and you know it’s a nice thing to do. [Grayson Perry, Reith Lectures 2013, Lecture 2, Q&A [transcript, PDF], audio]

In the same way, the person who gets the most out of a chart is the person who constructed it. They know what they left in and what they left out. They know why the axes are selected as they are, why elements are coloured or sized as they are. They know the question that led up to the chart and the answers it provides to those questions. They know where to look. Like an art critic who reads their way round a painting, they know how to read one or many different stories from the chart.

The interactives that appeared during the data journalism wave from a couple of years ago sought to provide a playground for people to play with data and tells their own stories with it. But they didn’t. In part because they didn’t know how to play with data, didn’t know how to use it in a constructive way as part of a narrative, (even a made up, playful narrative). And in part this comes back to not knowing how to read – that is, recover stories from – a chart.

It is often said that a picture saves a thousand words, but if the picture tells a thousand word story, how many of us try to read that thousand word story from each picture or chart? Maybe we need to use a thousand words as well as the chart? (How many words does Hans Rosling use? How many, Kurt Vonnegut?)

When producing a chart that essentially represents a summary of a conversation with have had with a dataset, it’s important to remember that for someone looking at the final chart it might not make as much sense in absence of the narrative that was used to construct it. Edward de Bono’s constructed illustrations helps read a the final image through recalling his narrative. But if we just look at a “completed” sketch from one of his talks, it will probably be meaningless.

One of the ideas that works for me when I reflect on my own playing with data is that it is a conversation. Meaning is constructed through the conversation I have with a dataset, and the things it reveals when I pose particular questions to it. In many cases, these questions are based on filtering a dataset, although the result may be displayed in many ways. The answers I get to a question inform the next question I want to ask. Questions take the form of constructing this chart as opposed to that chart, though I am free to ask the same question in many slightly different ways if the answers don’t appear to be revealing of anything.

It is in this direction – of seeing data as a source that can be interviewed and coaxed into telling stories – that I sense elements of the data journalism thang are developing. This leads naturally into seeing data journalism skills as core investigative style skills that all journalists would benefit from. (Seeing things as data allows you to ask particular sorts of question in very particular ways. Being able to cast things into a data form – as for example in Creating Data from Text – Regular Expressions in OpenRefine) – so that they become amenable to data-style queries, is the next idea I think we need to get across…

So what are the jobs that are out at the moment? Here’s a quick round-up of some that I’ve spotted…

  • Data editor (Guardian): “develop and implement a clear strategy for the Data team and the use of data, numbers and statistics to generate news stories, analysis pieces, blogs and fact checks for The Guardian and The Observer.
    You will take responsibility for commissioning and editing content for the Guardian and Observer data blogs as well as managing the research needs of the graphics department and home and foreign news desks. With day-to-day managerial responsibility for a team of three reporters / researchers working on the data blog, you will also be responsible for data analysis and visualisation: using a variety of specialist software and online tools, including Tableau, ARCGis, Google Fusion, Microsoft Access and Excel”

Perpetuating the “recent trad take” on data journalism, viewed as gonzo journalist hacker:

  • Data Journalist [Telegraph Media Group]: “[S]ource, sift and surface data to find and generate stories, assist with storytelling and to support interactive team in delivering data projects.
    “The Data Journalist will sit within the Interactive Data team, and will work with a team of designers, web developers and journalists on data-led stories and in developing innovative interactive infographics, visualisations and news applications. They will need to think and work fast to tackle on-going news stories and tight deadlines.
    “Applicants should have a portfolio of relevant work and bylines on data-led stories and/or interactive graphics. The role will include mentoring and training opportunities, but candidates should feel confident working with HTML/CSS, Javascript, PHP and MySQL, even if they are not writing code themselves. Experience of writing scrapers and using statistical software (e.g. R) is desired, but not essential.
  • One of the most exciting opportunities that I can see around data related published is in new workflows and minimising the gap between investigative tools and published outputs. This seems to me a bit risky in that it seems so conservative when it comes to getting data outputs actually published?
    Designer [Trinity Mirror]: “Trinity Mirror’s pioneering data unit is looking for a first-class designer to work across online and print titles. … You will be a whizz with design software – such as Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign – and understand the principles of designing infographics, charts and interactives for the web. You will also be able to design simple graphical templates for re-purposing around the group.
    “You should have a keen interest in current affairs and sport, and be familiar with – and committed to – the role data journalism can play in a modern newsroom.”
  • [Trinity Mirror]: Can you take an API feed and turn it into a compelling gadget which will get the whole country talking?
    “Trinity Mirror’s pioneering data unit is looking for a coder/developer to help it take the next step in helping shape the future of journalism. …
    “You will be able to create tools which automatically grab the latest data and use them to create interactive, dynamically-updated charts, maps and gadgets across a huge range of subjects – everything from crime to football. …
    “The successful candidate will have a thorough knowledge of scraping techniques, ability to manage a database using SQL, and demonstrable ability in at least one programming language.”

But there is hope about the embedding of data skills as part of everyday journalistic practice:

  • Culture report (Guardian): “We are looking for a Culture Reporter to generate stories and cover breaking news relating to Popular Culture, Film and Music … Applicants should also have expertise with digital tools including blogging, social media, data journalism and mobile publishing. “
  • Investigations Correspondent [BBC Newsnight]: “Reporting to the Editor, the Investigations Correspondent will contribute to Newsnight by producing long term investigations as well as sometimes contributing to big ongoing stories. Some investigations will take months, but there will also be times when we’ll need to dig up new lines on moving the stories in days.
    “We want a first rate reporter with a proven track record of breaking big stories who can comfortably work across all subject areas from politics to sport. You will be an established investigative journalist with a wide range of contacts and sources as well as having experience with a range of different investigative approaches including data journalism, Freedom Of Information (FOI) and undercover reporting.”
  • News Reporter, GP [Haymarket Medical Media]: “GP is part of Haymarket Medical Media, which also produces MIMS, Medeconomics, Inside Commissioning, and mycme.com, and delivers a wide range of medical education projects. …
    “Ideally you will also have some experience of data journalism, understand how social media can be used to enhance news coverage and have some knowledge of multimedia journalism, including video and blogs.”
  • Reporter, ENDS Report [Haymarket]: “We are looking for someone who has excellent reporting and writing skills, is enthusiastic and able to digest and summarise in depth documents and analysis. You will also need to be comfortable with dealing with numbers and statistics and prepared to sift through data to find the story that no one else spots.
    “Ideally you will have some experience of data journalism, understand how social media can be used to enhance news coverage.”

Are there any other current ones I’m missing?

I think the biggest shift we need is to get folk treating data as a source that responds to a particular style of questioning. Learning how to make the source comfortable and get it into a state where you can start to ask it questions is one key skill. Knowing how to frame questions so that discover the answers you need for a story are another. Choosing which bits of the conversation you use in a report (if any – maybe the conversation is akin to a background chat?) yet another.

Treating data as a source also helps us think about how we need to take care with it – how not to ask leading questions, how not to get it to say things it doesn’t mean. (On the other hand, some folk will undoubtedly force the data to say things it never intended to say…

“If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess” [Ronald Coase]

[Disclaimer: I started looking at some medical data for Haymarket.]

Written by Tony Hirst

December 19, 2013 at 7:54 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the great post, it really helped me to better formulate some concerns about the directions in which data journalism seems to be developing. I totally agree with the idea that the shift in treatng data by the media is needed. The thing is that I can’t see any particular reason of why it should happen. When it comes to the areas where data analysis is essential, like business or science, treating data properly is a key thing, otherwise there is no point in such analysis. But with data driven journalism the responsibility balance and general motivation seem to be very different from business and science, just because the tasks and objectives are different. I do hope that after a while data will be integrated in the list of routine journalism sources, but there might be a chance that we will end up seeing the movement split into two parts, one of which will be simply good journalism that uses data because they are available and the other will be ‘data journalism’ trying to attract the audience with the help of fancy, but meaningless (if not misleading) visualisations.

    Anna Sakoyan

    December 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    • Hi Anna – thanks for the comment. For me, the availability of datasets and tools to process data makes the role of data-as-source just an extension of the ideas of what I guess has traditionally been called computer assisted reporting. There’s also “database journalism”, which I guess we’ll see more of as more data-to-text services such as those produced by Narrative Science take off. (Interactives are another take on this .) Finally, there’s the ‘data graphics’ bit, where a data-based illustration is used to complement a text.

      I guess one of the things that concerns me is the extent to which folk actually engage with “reading” a chart?

      Tony Hirst

      December 28, 2013 at 12:57 pm

      • Tony, thanks for providing this brief classification. The question of how many people really do read charts (and in how many cases they come to absolutely wrong conclusions if they do) is very interesting indeed, so after reading your post I’ve been for quite a while actually trying to imagine how it possibly could be checked or measured. No luck so far. But the question seems important regarding the proportion of using graphics. Personally, I wasn’t good at reading infographics before I started learning how to work with data, so I had to specially train myself to read it.

        Anna Sakoyan

        January 5, 2014 at 5:00 am


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