The Importance of Data in Journalism
Data became perhaps more hotly debated than ever when the 2016 election results came out. On November 7th, one day before the election, polls showed Clinton at 46.8% and Trump lagging behind at 44.3%. The following day, these polls were turned on their head as the country watched Trump win the race. This lead to a debate in the world of media as to what the value of this type of data actually is.
Data, however, and despite its occasional faultiness, is crucial to journalists and to the stories that they publish. This, first and foremost, is because numbers hold invaluable significance, but they are often difficult to picture. Data allows readers, with the help of data visualization, to see the invisible. What does a town with a population of 3,000 look like, for example? A town of 30,000? A city of 3 million? With the use of illustration and diagrams, data can be presented on a page in a way that brings a story to life.
Data can show the invisible, of course, even without drawing a picture or showing a diagram or graph. Data creates stories of its own, and Data Journalism is in fact its own category in the journalism world. Data creates stories because it can show, for example, the way in which the government’s budget changes from president to president, or from city council to city council. Data can demonstrate, also, any gap in those numbers that could be problematic or suspicious. Data can tell the health history of a given city or country by looking at births, or at deaths and their causes, over time. It can observe financial crises, personal and large-scale. This list goes on, and data can even attempt to predict the future of each of these given scenarios (something that most reported stories cannot even attempt to do).
Investigative journalism, another subcategory of journalism, relies heavily on data. The recent Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight” provides a glimpse into what investigative journalists do, and much of it is as conversation-heavy as the movie suggests (going door-to-door tracking people down and trying to get information from them, for example). However, much of investigations like this one rely heavily on numbers and data. Matt Carroll, one of the Boston Globe journalists portrayed in this film, talks about his own role as the “data geek” of the team. The Boston Globe investigation and Spotlight both served to change important policy. This is just one example of the way in which data, as part of a journalistic process, can be transformative.
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