BIG DATA INSPIRES INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

I know real journalists don't believe in "good news" , but investigative journalism is being revitalized, thanks to big data gathering techniques. Not just in the instant fact-checking provided in the Hillary-Donald slug fest via Twitter and other sources, but in the deep-down, drill-down grunge work which real investigative journalism is.

Journalism students are now thinking about statistics as a serious course option. A flag-bearer is American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, where a simple scroll of the home page reveals how big numbers can reveal critical, personalized stories and expose wrong-doing and corruption.

But the elusive quote, "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" popularized by Mark Twain, should never be far from the inquiring reader. And fact-checking the fact-gatherers is also a rapidly expanding form of journalism.

 

My former public radio colleague Patrick Madden exposed a web of government corruption in Washington DC for the capitol's NPR affiliate, WAMU, putting the station's reporting on the national map, leading to new practices in the DC City Council and helping to send a corrupt political donor to jail. The work involved Patrick and a team of interns painstakingly piecing together complex financial documents and collating them in a way the story made sense to both listeners and web users.

The website fivethirtyeight has been picked over for using political statistics in ways which some believe skew the reality, but their constantly changing "election update" analysis of the Trump/Clinton polls goes much deeper than the horse race, to demonstrate the areas in which both candidates need to pick up votes, and focusing on issues rather than personalities. This kind of data assembly would not have been possible a decade ago.

Slate produced an eye-catching assessment of gun violence over a 2-year period after the horrid murders of the children at Sandy Hook, and the project has been taken forward by the Gun Violence Archive Project. The interactive maps localize the gun control issue, giving it context and perspective, while honoring the victims.

Visually, it is all a far cry from my childhood days watching the BBC, where the meteorologist (or as we called him, "weatherman") Richard Bacon, proudly (and with hindsight, hilariously) moved his sticky British rain clouds around a static map.

 

It was the era of "invisible journalism", where the BBC radio newsreaders were required to wear jackets and ties lest imaginary audible standards dropped.

But as we surf the web, Mark Twain's reminder is never far behind, and a Dutch media trainer is the contemporary standard-bearer for his cynicism. Henk van Ess, a data journalism consultant with the United Nations, warns that truth "is a moving target".

Among other more complex examples, he cites his "Swiss Cheese" story, where a headline which claims it increases stomach cancer is easily debunked, because only six sufferers are involved, and when three more conform to the study it suddenly becomes an increase of 50%. The conclusion drawn is a stretch, at least. It's easy to identify holes in a flawed theory. The picture is from one of his presentations.

Similarly, too many offerings on the web are are confusing and cluttered, perhaps this one deliberately so. Somewhere in here is a map of Scotland.

 

Data Society's blog post highlights the dangers of misrepresenting data and offers practical steps for writers to maximize their work's impact.

Always double and triple-check your numbers, because someone will find the hole in the cheese. Don't run a map, chart, or graphic which you and your peers have trouble understanding yourselves. Test it on your biggest critic. And don't pack the illustration with superfluous information - stick to the points, attention-spans continue to diminish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 ways to succeed at public speaking using your own words

Whatever your politics, no one could blame Melania Trump for being reticent to make a speech again.  Despite her strong presence and poise, she was vilified because she didn't own all the words and phrases herself.  Potential exposure to ridicule in front of strangers, whether it's in a school hall, a business forum, or on world-wide TV, creates the same feelings of anxiety.  According to this 2015 study by Chapman University, a third of Americans are afraid of public speaking.   

Some people spend hundreds or thousands of dollars trying to confront this anxiety with psychological therapy, but for most people who want, or need, to share their words with gatherings of strangers, a strategic approach is best.

It boils down to faith. Not the sort on display in the evangelical sections of the Republican Convention, but faith in your own ability to manage your emotions with positive thoughts, and the right amount of preparation and practice.

FAITH IN YOUR MATERIALS

It's easy to look over the sea of critical eyes and imagine the audience sitting in judgment. Remember that, like you, they're all human - capable of empathy, of active listening, and of emotional support. Look around the room, latch onto the eyes in the audience who are watching and listening to you intently, and focus on speaking directly to them. Try to find a person in each different section of your audience who is paying acute attention to what you're saying.

Own your own words and ideas, and formulate them in your head in a way you can articulate them to others. If someone else has drafted your speech, make sure it's finalized in your own style, your own words, and your own powers of expression. If you DO borrow someone's words - QUOTE them - it reflects well on your humility and confidence. Don't write scribbled notes you can't read clearly "on the night",  no handwritten paragraphs, tiny print, orloose pages. Nervous speakers like to cling to something, which often then becomes an obstacle to speaking clearly, and to letting your hands free to emphasize your points naturally.

First, do your research, so you know your subject. Next, spend a couple of days simply thinking about what you want to say. When you're ready, write a "structure" . Here's a quick example/template which won't apply to all addresses

Opening remarks (for a positive, humorous, or story-telling start)

Your reason for being there

Why your remarks are important/timely - the justification

The facts and background you want others to know

The point of the story

A recap of your critical points

The take-away from the speech

Once you have your structure down, take a bunch of postcard-sized note cards.

Imagine they are a PowerPoint presentation - with the key points written in bullet-form. If you've done your research, this is all you should take to the stage. They're easy to handle, easy to refer to, and you won't lose your way. At the same time, you'll speak spontaneously and naturally, and have time to establish and maintain great eye contact with the audience. Practice with your best friend. If you can, video your practice sessions to become comfortable with your own presence, your posture, and your voice.

FAITH IN YOUR AUDIENCE

 

Remember most of them, when called on to speak, are as terrified as you are, and they will probably remember that feeling as they listen to you.

It's easy to look over the sea of critical eyes and imagine the audience sitting in judgment. Remember that, like you, they're all human - capable of empathy, of active listening, and of emotional support. Look around the room, latch onto the eyes in the audience who are watching and listening to you intently, and focus on speaking directly to them. Try to find a person in each different section of your audience who is paying acute attention to what you're saying.

 

FAITH IN YOURSELF

Your Mom probably told you know one will believe in you if you don't believe in yourself. So it's time to practice mindfulness. You have an important story to tell. You have a captive audience, and you can give them new information they need to know. So walk out to the front of the stage - ignore the podium or any other protective, defensive devices - stand up straight and tall, stand still - feel your feet like heavy weights anchored to the floor, and use your hands to "act out" the points you are making. Above all, smile when you can - even if it's a tough subject. If you open yourself to the audience, they will likely open up to you.  Sincerity and authenticity, are your friends.

If you like this advice, check out http://www.birkdalemedia.com for more.