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8 reasons why journalists should use data to improve their stories

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8 reasons why journalists should use data to improve their stories

Catherine Gicheru | August 25, 2016

ICFJ Knight Fellow Catherine Gicheru recently spoke with a group of journalism students in Nairobi about using data to improve news stories. Gicheru, an award-winning investigative journalist and former editor of Kenya’s fastest growing newspaper, The Star, is leading efforts to expand the use of data by Kenyan newsrooms. Here are a few tips and insights she shared.

1.) Journalists must evolve to remain relevant.

The time when legacy or traditional media — radio, TV or newspapers — were the only way to reach the public is on its way out. For print journalists in particular, data provides an opportunity to add depth to their analysis and to put what has happened into context. This kind of depth or perspective is sometimes not easily available. That means that journalists will have to slightly change how they do their reporting. The "he-said she-said" is not enough if journalists are to remain relevant.

2.) With rapid advancement of technology there is greater digitization of data.

This can help drive or inform policies on a wide range of issues, from health care to security, and may even help improve access to government services.

3.) Data can be used to provide deeper insights into what is happening around us and how it might affect us.

From telling people what has happened, data can help journalists provide the analysis and information that they need to be able to make sense of the important issues of the day. 

4.) Data can improve a complex story.

Combined with traditional reporting techniques, data can help you tell stories in more compelling and innovative ways and give citizens actionable information. How many tarmac roads are there in the country and how does this measure up with the investments made by both the national and county governments? Are taxpayers getting value for money in terms of these allocations?

5.) Data can help journalists speak truth to power. 

This includes challenging some of the "mis-statements" that are bandied about as facts. How many teachers, doctors, nurses could have been trained with the 791 million Kenyan shillings "misplaced" through fraud at the National Youth Service, which led to the resignation of a cabinet secretary?  And is it really true that 1.2 million women will benefit from the free maternity hospital as President Uhuru stated during the State of the Nation address on March 31, 2016?

6.) Using data means there is less guesswork about what the facts are.

You do not have to rely solely on quotes by individuals who tend to deny everything if they come under pressure or opt to "mis-remember." It also means you are in a strong position to defend yourself from those who accuse you of being paid to tarnish their names.

7.) You can also use data to hold politicians/officials accountable. 

This is particularly relevant when it comes to checking whether officials have kept promises made at election time. In my experience as a reporter in Kenya, parliament reports are one useful resource for doing so.

8.) Data journalism is the future.

Traditional techniques for gathering information  — like wearing out shoe leather to get face-to-face meetings with sources — are still an integral part of what we do as journalists. But being a good writer with good sources is no longer enough. You also benefit from a few multimedia skills here, a dose of computer-assisted research there, and willingness to collaborate with others, such as data scientists or graphic artists. They are all important if we are to meet the added responsibility of shifting through the noise and providing citizens with information that matters to them, and in a way that makes sense to them.

Catherine Gicheru is a veteran Kenyan journalist working with Code for KenyaLearn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Image CC-licensed by the European Journalism Center

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