Verge/Vox engineer explains four steps of data journalism

SPJ Louisiana is publishing articles written by University of Louisiana at Lafayette chapter members who attended the SPJ Region 12 conference in New Orleans.

by HOLLY DUCHMANN

“Data can be the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told,” said Frank Bi, editorial engineer of The Verge and Vox Media, to eight journalists in varying stages of their careers at the SPJ Region 12 Conference and JournCamp held in New Orleans April 16.

“Like with any source, it should be treated with skepticism, and like with any tool, we should be conscious of how it can shape and restrict the stories that are created with it,” Bi said.

There are four steps, he related, to practicing a data-driven journalistic process: gathering the data, filtering the data, visualization and production of the story.

A journalist finds his or her angle of a story from the quantitative data found through the filtering process, whether by focusing on location, intensity or by organization. When manipulating data, it can be easy to lose sight of what has been done to it, so Bi suggested that journalists should keep a diary detailing how the data has been filtered.

After filtering the data, the reporter must decide if visualization techniques would be the best way to tell the story, and if so, if the data warrants a chart. For the majority of times in a newsroom, there are only a few charts needed, according to Bi. Although pie charts are popular, bar graphs and cartograms are generally smarter choices to showcase findings, and pie charts should be used only if the data add up to 100 percent and if not divided into more than four slices.

Data can be a backbone and keep a story together, Bi said.

Bi walked through several examples of filtering through data and displaying them visually using Google charts and Google sheets, which are free and easy to use for journalists with minimal data experience, according to Bi.

Technological advances have allowed journalists to gather data easier than ever, Bi said.

“This is why data journalism is kind of taking off as it has, because we have greater access to data than we’ve ever had before,” Bi said. “Technology is turning everything into numbers, things we’ve never thought about or even dreamed about.”

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