I was never good at math. And by the end of Year 11, I’d had enough.
By then I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. I honestly thought numbers would be irrelevant to my career.
So, I traded Math for a course in Religion and Society thinking that would be a smart move before embarking on my journalistic pursuits.
Turns out I was wrong.
Fast forward six years, and now I’m staring at a data ridden excel sheet wondering: what do all of these numbers mean and how the hell am I supposed to turn them a graph?
By now it’s no secret. I’m trialling a data journalism role at Business Spectator. But I wouldn’t let myself be known as a ‘data journalist’, so I renamed the role. Till the end of February (and possibly onwards) I’m Business Spectator’s ‘Social Content Editor’.
Why did I do this? And why did I label myself the site’s ‘Social Content Editor’?
I’ll go into that second point in a later post. But here’s why I renamed the role in the first place.
The explanation begins with a trip down memory lane to my Uni course in investigative journalism (yes, such a subject exists at Monash).
In one of my tutorials one of my colleagues asked: “what’s the difference between normal journalism and investigative journalism”. The tutor replied that it’s all about the level of “digging” a journalist must undertake to unearth a story. A shallow story is still journalism, but a multifaceted, revealing yarn is ‘investigative journalism’.
That’s all well and good, but hold on, isn’t that also the difference between good and bad journalism? Given this, I think can safely say that data journalism is simply another form of good journalism*.
The best examples of it use hard facts and evidence to provide insight into an issue. They’re formatted so that they are easy to understand, and they should always reveal something new to the audience.
It ticks all the ‘good journalism’ boxes, doesn’t it?
Yet, just like investigative journalism, it has been pigeonholed as some sort of specialist role by many newsrooms. One where a ‘data journalist’ still needs to partner with a ‘real’ journalist in order to break a story.
Luckily, this trend is dying down. But this is why I refuse to myself be known as a data journalist.
I’m not just fiddling around with numbers for other to write about. Nor am I an analyst. I’m using statistics, analysis and visualisation to enhance my storytelling. Just like I would with a picture, a podcast, a Storify, or some embedded tweets.
Better yet, I’m not just sending a spreadsheet off to the graphics desk either, I’m building my own graphs and charts.
To be honest, this idea that data journalism is good journalism isn’t an original concept. It was inspired by a US publication called Quartz.
Their journalists embed graphs and charts in almost all of their stories, all the time. They even created a tool to help other journalists build better visualisations for their work. Building charts and using data to tell a story is the norm at Quartz, not the exception.
Digital newsrooms need to catch on to this trend. Bloggers have been doing it for years.
All of this isn’t to say that there hasn’t been a rather steep learning curve. Learning excel is a challenge, and now after almost a week of going home beaten and demoralised by my lack of skills am I starting to pick it up.
Like all things, you get better at it over time. And seeing trends in the data, that’s almost like news-sense; it’s a trainable skill and you hone it over time. If you get it right, the pay-off can be amazing. The clicks and engagement I’ve seen with my stories over the past couple of weeks are proof of this.
The best part: thanks to excel and a quick Google every now and again, you don’t even have to be that great at math to do it.
Some of my work:
- Australia is not all doom and gloom; here are five surprising growth sectors
- How much is the car industry really worth to Australia?
- Is Australia a workers’ paradise?
*To clear this up; just because I’m doing data journalism now doesn’t mean I’m doing good journalism. That’s up to the reader to decide. I’m happy with what I’m doing now, but I know I can do better once I’ve gotten a better hang of the role.