Here’s how to break into Data Journalism — A journalist’s perspective

Illustration by @neemascribbles

Four years ago, If you had asked me to participate in a discussion about data, I would have shied away from it. Like many, we grow up believing that topics such as data, Artificial Intelligence, and machine learning are as foreign as anything else within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Working with data, however, is like stepping into vast, unknown territory. At first, as was the case with me four years ago, raw data is puzzling to the eyes and to the mind. Such data is unwieldy. It is quite hard to shape it correctly for visualization.

A lot of water has flown under the proverbial bridge since I started pursuing my journalism and communication degree, however, and today I can confidently tackle the subject. So, join me as I dissect what data is all about.

What is data?

Fundamentally presented as plain facts and statistics, data is collected and used to measure a variety of activities internally and externally. Data Journalism helps in finding unique stories from the data sets provided, and it goes without saying that being comfortable with data is an essential skill for journalism.

Both “data” and “journalism” are complicated terms. But we now live in a digital world in which nearly everything and almost anything can be and is described with numbers. From the orders you make online, the signups, the viewership on your favorite news channel, the stories you tell and the movies you watch as well as the terms and conditions that you accept, the passwords you set up, the books you sign in as you enter a building, the medical records you give, the personal information you share; it is all data.

With this in mind, and the fact that data means information — your information, my information, our information — would you and I and, anyone else for that matter, still be interested in a conversation about data?

I assume if you’re still reading, you are interested in the thoughts that you or your children, friends, and family, companies, organizations, governments, institutions, and the whole wide world are very much impacted by every single set of data.

Technically, data refers to the fact that some existing info is represented in a form so suitable for better usage. Data is measured, collected and reported, and analyzed, whereupon it can be visualized using graphs, images, or other analysis tools.

What is data journalism?

This brings me to perhaps something an aspiring or a practicing journalist might be interested in — the art of using data to tell stories — data journalism. Data journalism is a process of understanding data fully because what you’re looking for in data, informs the way you’re going to interpret it.

This implies that a journalist needs to correctly read data to avoid misinterpretation. It is more than just telling two sides of the story, but rather questioning, investigating, critiquing, analyzing and examining situations.

In Data Journalism, you realize that there is open data — free to be used and accessed by the public and ready for journalists to use. This can be found on websites. What is trickier is the closed data — not freely used, re-used or very accessible like the pdfs.

I find data to be very valuable in journalism, from understanding the context and the sources of data like reports to using the existing data that has been provided.

Journalism is all about appealing to audiences, and because data allows us to appreciate information through visualization and with these numbers, we focus and draw attention to areas that stand out as we tell the story!

This is why journalists should see data as an opportunity. They can, for example, reveal how some abstract threat like youth unemployment in Uganda, affects people based on their age, gender, or education. While using data, journalists can transform something abstract into something everyone can understand and relate to.

Data is evidence; it is visible and very beneficial. With data, it is easy to hold officials accountable, educate the public, facilitate planning and investigate key issues that are depicted by the numbers.

All you need to do as a journalist is ask yourself; what surprises me about that data? What’s missing? What bright spots do I see in the data? What more do I wish I knew? And what are areas of concern?

Do we have data sources and tools?

Some of the data sources I have used are interviews and with these you just need to hone your interview skills and critical thinking to ask the right person the right question.

Reports are complex but very valuable data sources, and I have also used expert sources as well. My favorite data tool is Excel. To be honest, I haven’t compressed everything that comes with this genius. With an excel spreadsheet, you can sort, mine, clean, analyze, organize, etc, any information that has been presented to you.

If anything, every journalist needs to know how to source data, read it, use it, pitch a story, present it and tell a story using data since data speaks for itself. I learnt that anything not backed up by data is a lie!

I have also learned that data is very valuable in decision making perhaps the more reason journalists need to even report data and understand it.

We definitely need to understand how data is collected and analyzed, presented, and how it has enforced the changes that have been implemented.

Data Journalism is becoming a more fascinating concept for so many young and veteran journalists. Unfortunately, it is a term we do not hear so much in our classrooms, and neither do we read as many newspapers, articles, blogs and news stories with a lot of information presented in computed and analyzed formats.

How do we make journalism data-driven?

For the data enthusiasts, perhaps you also have your share in this story, obviously not to learn about data — you know it all, how about making this whole data conversation simpler and easier to be understood by us the non- technocrats, policy makers, decision makers, story tellers, the ordinary people, the folks that have no idea that their data has a lot of value and great impact on their livelihoods.

Agreeably, now is the best time to actually have this conversation. Let’s make it a point that another year doesn’t pass by and individuals like myself have no idea what data is. The value and need for data should be known not only to the data community but to all viable sectors like the finance, education, governance and in our day-to-day lives.

We all have witnessed how in a snap- second the world can shift from a normal to something we never imagined. Covid-19 has changed how we have normally done everything, from learning in physical spaces to shopping, entertainment, work, and has had a significant impact on our lives.

Now more than ever, we are glued to our screens and sharing large amounts of information with those near and far. With all this information comes a critical issue of how it is being used by data companies and policy makers.

Multimedia storytelling is the way forward and journalists need to embrace data journalism or data storytelling. With the availability of open and public tools for data exploration, joined with the creativity of journalists in providing context and giving meaning to data, producing more detailed in-depth investigative pieces can be a complement to the traditional approaches. And this is exactly what we need to turn substantial numbers into an engaging and insightful story.

A challenge to this, however, is that Access to data can be restricted as governments may not have organized access to information laws. In addition, in particular situations, the data does not exist, to begin with. And if it does, you are not always guaranteed trustworthy databases released by government entities.

What is our call to action?

Data Fest Kampala comes at a very crucial time. We are living in an incredible period of change and Covid-19 has changed everything we knew upside down. This is the time for journalists to be awake and keep their eyes open on the numbers and information being shared.

We have witnessed an infodemic where so much information is deliberately shared by several news sources and entities, individuals and organizations to the ordinary citizen. For Example, numbers around the Covid-19 cases, recoveries, etc., and most of this data is not even checked.

Fortunately this is a rich topic that will exhaustively be discussed during the event under the subtheme: the pandemic and data. There are so many sets of data that have come with loads of disinformation, misinformation and fake news. It will require a critical, analytical and deliberate journalist to question this information, factcheck and verify its objectivity and I believe there is no better place communicators, storytellers and journalists should be than at the Data Fest.

The data fest will allow journalists to learn and collaborate with data enthusiasts , creatives and other stakeholders from different sectors and also attain skills and knowledge while embracing the twenty first century tools to explore data from data collection to presentation.

The theme of the event being living with data, an understanding of how a lay person understands data will be a plus to the stories that the journalists will tell or are yet to tell. With the desire to tell stories that matter, there is no better way to represent the ordinary citizen than have all journalists be part of the conversation that affects everyone and all of us.

Since data is very valuable yet always has been difficult to get. Imagine what free and available data on anything in Uganda, and a sharp critical sense of a journalist would look like and what it can bring to the table. Putting this concept of a data fest that freely allows all stakeholders that interface with data to come together and discuss is not only helpful, but downright necessary.

It needs experienced journalists, who have the stamina to look at often confusing or boring raw data and “see” the hidden stories in there. Once you understand the nitty-gritty of data, that’s when you enter a whole new world inhabited by a few.

Perhaps journalists will join in at the Data Fest Kampala 2021 and you all will have a say in how data is impacting your life under the theme: “Living with data.” Keep your eyes open for the next blog, but also, at the data fest Kampala 2021, be sure to learn new tools, engage and ask all those burning questions that you have ever wanted to ask!

Written by Marion Apio Communications Fellow at Pollicy.

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