Data journalism is not a totally new concept in media reporting. It has been there for decades and most journalists have been doing it since they have started making the rounds or walking their beats, writing and telling stories as members of the Fourth Estate. It used to be called computer-assisted reporting (CAR), which has been part of everyday journalism.
In fact, Brant Houston’s book ‘Computer-Assisted Reporting’ was first published in 1995, a year when data journalism was still in its relative infancy. I was in my third year as a Mass Communication student back then. Houston was among the pioneers of data-fueled reporting projects in U.S. newspapers during the 80s and early 90s. He likes to call investigative reporting as the “Research and Development department of journalism”.
In “We’re All Nerds Now” published in 1999, Joel Simon and Carol Napolitano emphasized that “It is in computer-assisted reporting where the real revolution is taking place, not only on the big analytical projects, but also in nuts-and-bolts news gathering. New Tools and techniques have made it possible for journalists to dig up vital information on deadline, to quickly add depth and context”.
Jason Method in “The Benefits of Computer-Assisted Reporting” in 2008 said CAR or data journalism “gives journalists the opportunity to dig for truth in data, and the comparative analysis that a computer can do often reveal pertinent questions. It also provides readers with knowledge and insights that can cut through the clutter of opinionated noise and celebrity obsession. It also can allow even relatively small news operations to delve into problems affecting the global community, yet speak to readers and viewers right around the block.”
The first quote was written at a time when the 20th century was coming to an end but it remains true today, showing how crucial is reporting that utilizes modern computer technology and various tools in gathering, sorting, analyzing and presenting data that create impact on societies.
Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism made it clear during the Advanced Data Journalism Bootcamp I attended in Quezon City recently, that data are not just numbers.
“It’s the raw material that we use to understand our world better. These are the unprocessed symbols that represent characteristics of objects or people. Data could also be descriptions of objects or people. We create information by creating our data using computer programs, using descriptive statistics that are more meaningful to us. When data is sorted and we start to compare – that is the time we get information from our data. Knowledge is created when we take information and turn it into something that can be acted upon,” explained Ilagan who strongly encouraged journalists from different parts of the country to have a data state of mind.
PCIJ Executive Director Carmela Fonbuena challenged the attendees of the bootcamp that was part of Watchdog Workshop Series 1, not to solely rely on conventional beat reporting that does not allow journalists to set the agenda. Agenda-setting is one of the superpowers of journalists. Simply put, journalists set the pressing issues of the day that need to be discussed and placed under public scrutiny through the headlines.
“Ang challenge kasi sa atin sa beat, alam ko ramdam niyo to lahat, is sometimes, sumasabay lang tayo sa kung ano yung mainit, kung ano yung sinabi ng presidente. That means we are just following the agenda of our politicians. Sumusunod lang tayo sa agenda ng powers that be. But as journalists, we have to be reminded na yes, we’re here to document the leaders, but we are really here to represent the public. So how do we influence a conversation about a particular issue by inserting the agenda of the public? Kung ano yung makakabuti sa public, na hindi lang sila (leaders) yung nagdidikta. National conversations shape policies,” stressed Fonbuena.
But being able to do real data reporting requires specific sets of skills. And most journalists are afraid of or dislike Math. I am one of them. But if we really wanna be of service to the citizens, then we shouldn’t run away from numbers and everything that falls under the category of data.
The desire to learn news skills in data gathering including mastering data sorting, mapping and visualizing data, brought us, journalists, together in order to learn from the experts. Thanks to PCIJ for gathering us and for providing a venue for learning and collaboration with the industry’s masters like Marites Vitug, veteran journalist and author, co-founder of Newsbreak, editor-at-large for Rappler and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Vitug was so straightforward when she reminded journalists at the bootcamp that even with the availability of various modern tools now that journalists can utilize to make sense of data, journos must never forget the basics of journalism which are timeliness, significance, relevance and the discipline of verification.
“It is a good reminder that we do not start with the desire to make sense of data. We are not motivated by a desire to use technology to flash the data, to use bells and whistles to illuminate the data. We always start with WHY? We have a question that wants to be answered and HOW? So that’s why we look for answers, then we find the data and when we see the data and the numbers, we find patterns and consequences. Patterns and trends. That is why data is important,” she added.
Meanwhile, Peter Mackenzie, country director of Internews and chief of party of the Initiative for Media Freedom, succinctly pointed out how important data journalism is in this age of disinformation. He quoted Mark Twain’s statement on three kinds of lies, “There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics,” describing the persuasive power of statistics to bolster a weak argument.
“Statistics when used in a malicious way, or in a way that is meant to mislead, even though they are facts, can be twisted and used in a way that takes people in the wrong direction. But data journalism is a way of taking people in the right direction by giving people the information that they need to understand the world around them a little better through facts,” said Mackenzie.
An excerpt from Houston’s book, ‘Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide’, hit me: It says “data journalism is essential to surviving as a journalist in the twenty-first century.” Why? RELEVANCE. If a journalist wants to survive and keep doing journalism in this age of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ChatGPT, he has to acquire knowledge of and sharpen the skills on data analysis, data interpretation and data visualization in order to make his audience appreciate the value of his story and its impact on their lives and the society. Journalists have to evolve, learn, re-learn and unlearn ways to gather, sort, analyze and present data. Using all the available tools online and offline will help us do our jobs accurately, effectively, efficiently and creatively.
Without at least a rudimentary knowledge of data analysis and the necessary data journalism skills sets, it would be far more difficult for a journalist to do meaningful journalism in the name of public service, moreso, perform a watchdog role.*