Challenges and opportunities in data journalism

Oct 30, 2018 in Data Journalism

In June, Canada’s Globe and Mail won “Investigation of the Year” honors for a series on why Canadian police dismiss so many sexual-assault cases as “unfounded.” Judges for the 2017 Data Journalism Awards praised the “deep data analysis” that exposed faults in the national system.

Further praise came swiftly and from high places. In a news report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted, "As we've seen from the excellent bit of very deep investigative reporting The Globe and Mail has just put out, [sexual assault] still is not taken seriously enough by our society.” The government announced $100 million to combat gender based violence, citing the Globe investigation. Dozens of police forces began reviewing cases.

The Globe and Mail’s series displayed data journalism at its best. But is it the exception or part of a trend for searching and visualizing digital sources? How prevalent is this form of journalism that demands new tools and skills?

A study spearheaded by Google News Lab in collaboration with PolicyViz provides insight into the state of data journalism and explores challenges practitioners face in this field.

Three questions were at the heart of the study that looked at the current state and challenges facing the field today.” How do journalists define data journalism? What types of stories are produced using data? What main challenges does data journalism face?

According to Simon Rogers, a data editor for Google News Lab and co-author of the study, just a decade ago, there were only a handful of data journalists. Today, research shows a dramatic change. Among the study’s key findings:

  • 42 percent of reporters use data to tell stories regularly (twice or more per week).

  • 51 percent of all news organizations in the U.S. and Europe now have a dedicated data journalist—and this rises to 60 percent for digital-only platforms.

  • 33 percent of journalists use data for political stories, followed by 28 percent for finance and 25 percent for investigative stories.

  • In France, 56 percent of newsrooms have a data journalist, followed by Germany with 52 percent, the UK with 52 percent and the U.S. with 46 percent

The study also looked at challenges data journalists face.  Among the most prevalent:

  • 53 percent of the sample saw data journalism as a specialty skill that requires extensive training and is not easy to pick up.

  • Survey respondents also discussed time pressures and the limited bandwidth from dedicated data journalists who can clean, process, and analyze data. Researchers found that 49 percent of data stories are created in a day or less.

  • The research also found that data visualization tools are not keeping up with the pace of innovation. As a result, reporters are building their own solutions: one-fifth of data journalists use in-house tools and software, whether it’s data visualization tools or even data cleaning solutions.

“Despite these challenges, data journalism in 2017 has become more mainstream than at any other time in its history. Newsrooms are producing incredible work that helps explain the world around us,” Rogers wrote when the study was released.

Among outstanding examples, he cites: NPR’s “Fact Check: Trump and Clinton Debate for First Time,” Berliner Morgenpost’s “It Was Not Always the East” and Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded.”

The study was conducted in two phases: During part one, in-depth interviews were conducted with 56 journalists in the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany.  Part two consisted of a quantitative polling survey with more than 900 journalists and editors.

Other conclusions drawn from the research include:

  • The role of the journalist is changing

  • Being able to report on data is now expected, but being able to collect, analyze and visualize data is still largely viewed as a specialized skill.

  • Not all newsrooms have the resources to employ a dedicated data journalist or data journalism team

  • Most organizations are exploring various methods to use more data in their reporting.

What would Rogers say to outlets considering whether or not to add data journalism to their repertoires?  

“It’s not expensive. It gives you access to a world of stories you might miss otherwise, and finally, do you really want your competitors to possess an area of expertise you are lacking in-house?” said Rogers.

Becoming data literate

The Data Journalism Handbook by Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru and Lucy Chambers can provide a jump-start for those interested gaining new skills or polishing old ones.

Among the most helpful sections: Become data literate in 3 simple steps; Using data visualization to find insights into numbers; and Basic steps of working with data. There are case studies and examples from the BBC, The Guardian, the German publication Zeit and others. Online.

Another easy-to-access resource: A free, self-paced course on, “Data Journalism: First steps, skills and tools.” Designed for beginners and taught by five instructors, including Rogers, the course takes around six hours to work through.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via adina*raul