Louise Lief

Data Journalism Helps Make Sense of a World Awash in Information

Wilson Center


Washington, D.C. July 30 –The explosion of data-sharing has created new opportunities for journalists to harness this information and create a more engaged and informed audience

At a Science and the Media and Wilson Center Commons Lab panel on Wednesday, July 30 entitled “Data Journalism and Policymaking: A Changing Landscape “ speakers explored the emerging field of data journalism and its impact. Alexander Howard, a writer and editor based in Washington D.C., said data journalism differs from other means of data-sharing because, unlike simply aggregrating and presenting data, reporters verify the information and put it into context to “support the creation of acts of journalism.”

His report, The Art and Science of Data-Drive Journalism, calls data journalism “the application of data science to journalism.” Howard says data journalists treat data as a source, as the media has traditionally done for human sources. They gather, clean, organize, analyze, visualize and publish it.

When viewing data this way, verification, clarity and transparency become necessary. A journalist must show the audience the work behind his or her conclusions, not only to gain their trust but to make sure the information is as accurate as possible.

data panel photo

Kalev Leetaru, Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University, described data as the “ultimate devil’s advocate.” “Does the data match people’s perceptions or does it tell a different story?” Leetaru asked. Sometimes indicators on the sidelines warn of greater trouble ahead, as did little-noticed reports of protests in Crimea while the world focused on the unrest in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

The massive amounts of data available on people’s personal lives now obliges journalists to make ethical decisions about what to share, said Howard. But data shared with the public can also mobilize people to act, as it did in a campaign to provide sanitation facilities to keep African girls in school, or mobilizing volunteers for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Collected Geiger counter readings warned of spreading radiation near Fukushima Japan after the tsunami damaged reactors there. .

Howard reminded attendees of the importance of maintaining a human element in stories. As journalists roles shift from primary information sources to curators, researchers, and teachers, they must remember their central role as storytellers first and foremost.

To watch the complete webcast of the event, click here.

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