4 reasons data journalism is hitting its stride

As we prepare for next week’s INMA European Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, we spoke to one of our featured speakers, Anthony Hamelle, director at Applied Works, a London-based digital and technology studio helping media and other companies tell stories with data. Hamelle discusses the emergence of data journalism.

INMA: Data journalism is booming around the media sector. What is the reason for its popularity?

Hamelle: I suppose you could break down the reasons for the data journalism boom in four, from least to most important.

  1. Data journalism is because it can be. It has been made possible — less expensive to produce — by digital technologies. The amount of work or resources needed to collect, store, and process the data has decreased by several orders of magnitude in recent years.

    Hence what would have taken several days of work, maybe weeks, in a bygone era now takes a few hours or a few days to produce. 

  2. Data journalism is an offspring of the broader data boom. I was recently at a conference where Sam Lee, open data expert at the World Bank, reminded the audience that a modern-day individual received on any single day the same amount of information that a 15th century individual in their lifetime.

  3. Media companies around the world are going through a turbulence zone with no apparent end in sight. Print advertising revenue has been declining alongside shrinking paper readership, with growing digital advertising revenues and audiences falling far short off compensating the former.

    The new business approaches that have been tested, notably paywalls, need to create engaging artifacts and offer original services. And data journalism is clearly one the tools available to media outlets.

  4. Last but certainly not least, the data journalism boom came about at a time when journalism itself was in crisis, with readers and the public at large perceiving — rightly or wrongly — journalists as being too complacent towards political or economic powers.

    In this light data journalism can be construed as investigative journalism through new means and by another name, allowing journalists — whether at ProPublica, Mediapart, the Guardian, the NYT or elsewhere — to make their investigative work more apparent and probably more impactful. 

INMA: Apart from data — what do journalists need to interestingly show and narrate around numbers?

Hamelle: I like the fact that your question is concerned with the narrative aspects of data journalism. Put simply, a good narrative approach takes some time to build as one attempting to author a narrative piece needs to accustom themselves with characters, plots and twists in the story, relationships between these different features.

Same goes for data journalism. I call it data telling more broadly. Journalists shouldn’t have to jump to a conclusion because they are under too much time pressure (which they understandably often are). They should be allowed to explore the data, to learn from them, before they begin writing the accompanying story and conclusions. 

INMA: What are, from your perspective, best examples of data journalism worldwide. Why?

Hamelle: To be sure the great work done by media outlets that have collaborated with Wikileaks or Edward Snowden, the Guardian’s work on the MPs’ expenses scandal, the continuous efforts of the NYT graphics department or all the exploratory/explanatory journalism initiatives around the world come to mind. 

However, I’d like to propose something slightly more iconoclastic. I would argue that the Watergate investigations by the Washington Post and The New York Times in the early 1970s are benchmarks of data journalism. The journalists had to untangle complex data, a web of relationships revealed by sources and phone calls, a variety of money trails.

This is where data journalism and investigative journalism meet, to the greatest benefit of our democracies.

About Marek Miller

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