Data Journalism for Beginners: Why do it and how to get started

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The School of Data Journalism is currently ongoing at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia and to coincide I’m going to try some actual blogging about doing data journalism to go alongside it  – so if you haven’t been able to make it to Italy and you haven’t had a chance to watch the live streams, here’s some ideas, tips and tutorials for getting started with data journalism.

May 1 – why data journalism and getting started
May 2 – finding your data
May 3 – cleaning it up
May 4 – mapping and visualising

Want more? Buy Getting Started with Data Journalism, a complete beginners guide to finding, cleaning analysing and visualising data in any size newsroom

Why data journalism?

What makes data journalism skills worth learning? Because they can help you find stories, or add weight to ideas, from data that is becoming more freely available and plentiful. Because you can do things quicker and easier, like analyse your FOI responses in a flash. Because visualisations can help tell stories in a more interesting way. Because if you don’t other people will beat you to these stories.

Steve Doig told those at the School of Data this morning that: “The important word in “data journalism” is “journalism”, not “data”. That pretty much sums it up, the data is the place you can find your story, but you need journalism 

The key to getting to grips with data journalism is remembering that it is just like all other types of journalism – what is the story?

All the skills you would use to find a story in any other situation still apply when you are looking at a spreadsheet full of numbers.

Some headlines from data journalism related stories (any excuse to get a Star Wars reference in)

Some headlines from data journalism related stories (any excuse to get a Star Wars reference in)

In many ways, you set about questioning a dataset or putting together a Freedom of Information request in much the same way you would think about interviewing a contact. You work out what information you are hoping to get back and the questions you might need to ask to do that.

Things that might make a data story:

  • The biggest, the highest, the most
  • The smallest, the fewest
  • Fastest growing
  • Location
  • Successes
  • Failures
  • Why?

People want information about things that affect their lives – how a government policy will affect them, how well local services are performing, how where they live compares to other places and whether things are better or whether they need to change.

Many stories have scope for data journalism. Many stories already are data journalism

The following examples show how combining traditional journalism skills with data journalism skills can help to build the story.


 Data journalism

Official statistics show a jump in the number of landlords going to court to get their tenants evicted.

The figure may just be a quarterly blip, so monitoring the trend over the longer term would be a good idea.

Traditional journalism

However, the timing of the period the data covers coincides with people starting to have their benefits reduced because of changes to Housing Benefit – the figures could mean more people are getting into arrears leading to their landlords trying to evict them.

Data journalism

If you have the number of eviction attempts in each area, can you also get the data for how much Housing Benefit has been reduced in those areas? Is there a correlation between areas with a big shortfall between the old and new Housing Benefit payments and high levels of eviction orders?

Traditional journalism

Talk to charities that help people facing housing problems and councils who receive applications from people in need of housing. See if they are experiencing an increase they can put down to landlords evicting more people with rent arrears because of Housing Benefit changes. Is it possible to go to court hearings for possession orders and find out the reasons behind applications?

Go where the stories are

Another reason to explore learning to do data journalism is data journalism can be the answer to the story drought.

Newspapers and online come with a high demand for new content, and ideas are sometimes in short supply and sources aren’t always supplying you with good tips and press releases are of varying quality but at least with data a bit of digging can lead to something new.

Working on the Trinity Mirror Data Unit, our main day to day job is to analyse available datasets (a mix of the ONS releases for the day, ideas for things we think might have datasets and any datasets or FOIs we’ve got hanging around) and come up with possible lines for the papers in the group – covering the two data journalism steps above, while journalists on the regional titles, with the local knowledge and contacts, fill in the traditional journalism steps.

Doing this, we can often come up with four or five potential leads a day, just working through datasets, often looking for the basic story ideas (see above) or doing fairly simple analysis (combining datasets, finding rates and percentages). The emphasis is mostly on finding the most interesting things we can from the dataset as quickly as possible, because the story idea needs to be reporters early so they can start getting comments on it.

There are interesting stories out there, so getting the skills to go get them is definitely worthwhile.

What you need to get started

In order to get started with data journalism, there are a few tools you need, many of which you will already have, and all of which have free options.

  • A program that opens spreadsheet files – Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc, which is open source software, so is free to download and use. Alternatively, you could use the spreadsheet option that is part of Google Drive.
  • Depending on what files you are working with, you may also need a PDF reader and a program to open word documents – there is one included in OpenOffice, or again you could use Google Drive.
  • A dataset or several datasets – the next section looks at where you can find data.
  • A place to write stories and a means of publishing them

You may also need:

  • A Google account – you will need this to access Google Fusion Tables and it is helpful for storing and sharing documents.
  • Something to visualise data with – there are a number of different online options, you can also use Google Charts and Google Fusion Tables or Tableau, which is available as both a free and paid for version.
  • Open Refine (formally Google Refine) – for cleaning data

Want more? Buy Getting Started with Data Journalism, a complete beginners guide to finding, cleaning analysing and visualising data in any size newsroom

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  1. Pingback: Data Journalism for Beginners: What to do about too awesome to be true data? |

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