Data journalism: Why we still don’t do it as much as we should

I am in St. Louis (Missouri) for the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference ( The event will have more than one hundred panels, demos and hands-on training sessions for all skill levels of data journalists.

Aron Pilhofer

Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York Times is on the board of directors of the IRE and will be speaking at the conference this Friday. He leads a team of journalists and developers who build data-driven applications to enhance The Times reporting online.

The term “data driven journalism” has suddenly become popular but Pilhofer says that data illiteracy among journalists is high. Contrary to what many might think, Pilhofer says that data journalism is not “rocket science” for the most part and insists that is “critical” for reporters to acquire at least some basic skills.

In his opinion, it is still hard to get reporters to think about using data as a source, to consider different ways and angles to tell a story. But the real barrier to data-based stories is that “at the highest level,” the importance of data journalism has “only gone so far,” he said. At the top level, it’s a skill that’s “been undervalued.” So, it’s not only a matter “of how important to you as a reporter these skills are” but “how important does you boss and your boss’s boss think they are.”


Q: Given the tools that we have, what do you think is the main challenge reporters have to face now when dealing with data?

A: To me, it’s not a problem of tools. I mean, we have more computing power, more ability to do stuff now than ever. With Amazon EC2, you can spin up basically a supercomputer
for an afternoon, if you wanted to, and pay a $100 or something like that, if you needed to analyze large amounts of data. It’s not a technology problem, it’s a people problem.

Q: Where does the resistance come from? What is the problem behind that?

A: I think it is a lot of different things. It ranges from sins of omission to sins of commission. I think there are reporters who feel like either because they are afraid of data, using data or because they have some notion that data analysis isn’t necessary, that old-fashioned reporting is the way it’s been done, it’s always been done and always should be done and that to me is a sin of commission. On the other side, there is a problem in newsrooms that’s just a lack of awareness that this is is even a tool, that is even a technique or a possibility. I think, that to me is the more tragic of the two.

Q: What could media companies do to solve the problem?

A: It requires an investment, it requires someone at a high level to say: ‘You know what, this reporter might be a good writer but instead I am going to hire this other person who might not be quite as good and fluent as as a writer but this person is a better reporter is somebody who can bring some of these new tools and technologies.’ And, unfortunately, I think very few news organizations have made that investment.

Q: In your opinion, how important is this skill for reporters moving forward?

A: I’ve covered ‘money and politics’ and most of the people I’ve competed with and worked with are totally data-illiterate and nobody seemed to have problems with that. Neither their bosses nor they seem to have a problem with that. That gave me a competitive advantage over them. They knew that I had a competitive advantage over them. Yet, still it never seemed to dawn on anybody that this is something that maybe they ought to get in line with. So, I don’t honestly know how you do, how many reporters do their jobs without having some really simple basic data skills but still many reporters seem to be doing their job fine and their bosses seem to think they are doing a great job. So maybe I’m wrong but to me it’s critical.

Q: How would you describe simple basic data skills? What is that for you?

A: Knowing your way around the spreadsheet, having some basic understanding of statistics. Having the ability to do some simple things like importing some data into a spreadsheet, a desktop database manager like Access, doing some basic queries, sorts (…) I teach and have taught for years basic computer-assisted reporting and I do it in this one-day classes. Nobody believes me but it’s totally true and in one day, in one day, we can teach you the skills that if mastered, would allow you to do 80% of all the computer-assisted reporting that has ever been done. It’s not brain surgery. I mean, this is really basic stuff. This is importing a spreadsheet, doing some basic math, knowing what a sum is, what a mode, a median, what an average is. I mean, being able to take a dataset, to do some basic count. I mean, this is not rocket science, for the most part. But even most of what I’ve described to you is beyond most reporters in most newsrooms.

Q: How did you develop this interest?

A: It was just something that I always did. To me I don’t know how other reporters don’t do it. That to me should be the question we are asking. Because when you’re covering a small school or when you’re covering a local government or whatever, how do you not throw their annual budget into a spreadsheet to make sure that everything adds up. It just blows my mind. When you’re talking about contracting, when you’re talking about all various ways of influence peddling happens and the responsibility of the reporter is to be the watchdog for the public. I don’t know how people do their job without knowing that kind of stuff. I think, that’s a better question: ‘How reporters get their job done without it?’

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    Opportunities to cover the campaign trail that were once coteved by more experienced reporters are now given to newer ones for less money, due to budget cutbacks. This can be beneficial for the younger reporters because they are experiencing bigger things early in their careers, but can also hurt them. They do not have those past experiences to help them deal with things that can happen while covering presidential campaigns. Another thing that can hurt all journalists is connection to the media. Journalists need to be aware of how they use social media because they’re closely being watched. One CBS News reporter checked his e-mail and Facebook, was photographed doing so, and then was criticized for being disengaged from the rally he was covering at the time. Innocent things like that can and will be used against reporters so it is important for them to be careful about what they are doing and who is watching them do it.

    May 5, 2012 Reply

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