How to turn data into stories: 5 insights from top data journalists

June 8, 2015

This post was written by Mike Lizun, Senior Vice President

Last week, Gregory FCA brought together four top journalists to dig into the power of data for storytelling. They spoke about how reporters transform raw information into graphics and stories and the best ways companies can fuel those stories – or create their own.

Gregory FCA President Greg Matusky interviewed Steve Lohr, author and technology reporter for The New York Times; Frank Bi, starting soon as editorial engineer at The Verge; Paul Cheung, director of interactive and digital news production for the Associated Press; and Erika Owens, program manager at Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.

Here are a few of the insights they offered into data journalism.

1.Big numbers aren’t enough for journalists. Reporters want to know where data is coming from – e.g., what’s the sample size? – so provide the data, not the analysis. Offer historical data, trends, and full data sets that reporters can sift through and interpret. With context and comparison, stories start to emerge. For example, Frank dug into the metrics around the new @POTUS Twitter account to put its popularity in context. He found President Obama gained more than 3,000 followers per minute.

2. Patterns aren’t necessarily stories. Steve pointed out that it’s easy to spot patterns in data, but what do they mean? The more data we collect, the greater the need to filter and interpret it, and the greater the responsibility journalists have in doing so. The bar is high.

3. Fold up your maps. We see them nearly every day, but according to the panel, maps can be a lazy – and potentially misleading – way of visually representing data. “California has a lot more people than Utah. Are you breaking it down by per capita? Are you breaking down the map by the same age group? I don’t know,” Paul said. Visuals are obviously important, but try to find the best representation for the data rather than relying on an easy way out. Erika noted that maps shouldn’t be off the table completely, “but there are so many examples of when people use them when a different visualization would have been more appropriate.”

4. Data-driven storytelling is nothing new, but it’s getting easier and better. Technology has helped drive new data-driven storytelling, and artificial intelligence and other tools offer it plenty of room to grow. Data journalism continues to attract scientists and reporters looking to tell stories with impact, and opportunities exist to give journalists data they haven’t yet gained access to. Paul noted, for example, that he’d like to see more segmented consumer data, broken down by race and age.

5.Data is meaningless without a story. Putting data in context, uncovering structure, and juxtaposing two different data sets can help breathe life into a story. Journalists have always used data as evidence in support of a story, but as technology allows us to collect more data and more easily analyze and interpret it, data is increasingly where reporters start. Simply by comparing two data sets, you can find a story that hasn’t been told before.

So dig into your databases, see what information you have to offer, what patterns it might hold, what visualizations it might inspire, and uncover a whole new opportunity for storytelling.

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