What Makes Data Journalism a Great CareerA New Interdisciplinary Field Emerges

a laptop on a desk with pretty charts and visualization next to a couple of books and a coffee cup

The other day, I was having this conversation with a friend: What’s the difference between data journalism and data driven academic papers?  The answer is that data journalism is often very, very similar to academic papers except that data journalism is less focused on research design, is written in a much more accessible way and more obviously provides information that informs the citizenry in useful ways.

Not all data journalism is the same, in the sense that it isn’t just having a pile of data and writing it up.  There are a few different types. You have the traditional “here is a big database of information from a source”.  This could be historical baseball stats or it could be something like Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Complaint Database or you can get something much smaller like UK Anti-Doping Agency: marijuana anti doping rule violations .  These you can pretty much do data manipulation to look for patterns and trends.   Often, this data is pre-formatted to make doing that type of analysis really easy if you’re familiar with the area.

You can also get data by getting it yourself as a journalist.  This might be done because a source gives a number but you have doubts.  The Internet makes it easier to go and get this if you know what you’re doing.  Want marijuana doping sanctions across all of sport?  Then go visit the website of every international sports federation that is a World Anti-Doping Agency signatory and every national anti-doping agency.  Poke around and compile all this into your own file.   It is time consuming but when you’re done, you have a nice data file that you can then use for analysis.

You can also do data journalism like Panama Papers Leak (April 2016) , which isn’t what you typically think of with data in that it was more of a search engine contain lots and lots of data from individual files.  It was in many ways a combination of the above two.

What makes this all great?  There are a bunch of things.  One of the first things is that data journalists are often specialists in their fields.  If you’re doing data journalism in sports, you’re often very aware of the context for a lot of things going on.  If you’re a health reporter, you understand what those cold and flu data files tell you.  This level of expertise grounds data and assists in interpretation of data.  Because they’re (hopefully good) journalists, these experts are also aware of what is more likely to be newsworthy.  It helps.

Another thing that makes data journalism great is it often feeds itself because the data is shared and can be used by other news organizations to contextualize news stories.  One example of this is Doping in Olympic events: how does each sport compare? by The Guardian which begat What Sports Have the Worst Doping Problems? by Foreign Policy.   If you’re into sports governance issues and knowing about cheating in sports, this is all good as both publications use the same data from The Guardian to add to the narrative.

Data journalism is also great because it grounds news stories, makes things a bit less sensational and can be used to contextualize what public figures are saying.  A politician says the economy is improving?  But wait.  All the data from relevant government bodies says unemployment is worse, that consumer confidence is down, and that people’s incomes are falling.  Explain that politician.  You can ask those questions, publish the data analysis and then toss in the quote to explain it.  Data can serve to challenge the establishment narrative and journalists can try to elicit a response from power brokers in response to any contradictions. People reading the two narratives, the data and the power broker comments, can then draw their own conclusions as to which one to give more value to.   They’re more likely to favor the data when the story is written right.

That’s what makes it so great: It gives topic expert journalists another tool in their arsenal, allows news organizations to easily share information while getting completely different stories that add to the broader discussion, and grounds stories by taking out some of the sensationalist elements.

This article was first published by Laura as an answer on Quora and has been republished here with her permission

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Laura Hale is a sports journalist who has previously been a data journalist. She runs the blog Quora Numbers where she analyzes how the Quora community functions. You can follow Laura on Quora