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.