Research identifies 4 types of journalist relationships with data

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


ICYMI, my first report for INMA’s Newsroom Transformation Initiative was just released, offering practical advice for getting newsrooms closer to the business of news.

In researching and reporting the topics for this publication — Strategies for Continuously Transforming Your Newsroom — I had an opportunity to talk to media executives from many companies, to dig into case studies of newsrooms that are innovating and driving growth, and to deep-dive into insightful research.

One person I spoke to for the report was Louise Kjærgaard, a Danish lecturer from the University of Southern Denmark, who recently authored “An investigation into how user data affect journalists’ motivation — in the light of self-determination theory,” a 78-page thesis on data use in newsrooms.

We had a fascinating conversation on how journalists view data and how leadership can more effectively communicate about the use of metrics.

4 journalist-data relationships

Kjærgaard conducted qualitative interviews at multiple media companies for her research, concluding that journalists fall into four distinct types based on their motivation and their relationships to Web metrics:

  1. The distanced pragmatist: “I hold data at arm’s length and do journalism I can vouch for myself.”

  2. The worrier: “I’m concerned because data controls at the expense of journalistic quality. I am uncomfortable with management’s handling of data.”

  3. The pragmatist: “I care about getting good numbers and think journalism should meet the user.”

  4. The enthusiast: “Data is a brilliant tool, and I want even more. It makes journalism better and helps the media set the right priorities.”

“User data has changed the criteria in journalism,” Kjærgaard said. “It has led to a change in the professional identity of many journalists. Decisions are no longer being made on gut feeling — now we’re relying on data.”

Kjærgaard’s research found newsrooms with more journalists in the “enthusiast” category have one thing in common: Leadership is effective at communicating about data and involving journalists in the process.

5 recommendations to ease the relationship

She proposed five recommendations for media organisations to bolster journalists’ motivation around data use:

1. Always turn data into meaning:

  • Feedback should have learning points and be actionable.

  • Create learning through experiments, hypotheses, and personal feedback.

  • Involve journalists in how data is interpreted.

2. Manage by journalistic values, not by data:

  • Data targets should reflect the values of the media organisation.
  • Data measurements must be nuanced.
  • Involve journalists in what needs to be measured.

3. Discourage competition:

  • Consider setting organisation-wide goals but not individual goals.
  • Avoid competition and rewards that shift focus from task to competition.

4. Avoid insecurity:

  • Be transparent in explaining how data is used to assess individuals.
  • Ensure data is interpreted in context so journalists don’t feel judged on the wrong basis.
  • Create an open conversation that allows for critical feedback and questions about how data is used.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Amalie Nash

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.