In defense of old-school reporting tactics in the age of data journalism

byChristopher Guess
May 17, 2016 in Data Journalism
Reporters on street

To be fashionable in the journalism world these days, one needs only a single line on his or her CV: “data journalist.” It wins Pulitzers and it brings down dictators, but a singular focus on data massively underserves readers and writer alike.

Data journalism is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at the top of their jobs listings. It’s changed the game of research and fact-checking in the last 10 years. Columbia Journalism School now teaches Python software programs to its graduate students. These are good things. Data journalism has, however, become too much of a crutch, too much of the modern panacea.

For example, let me reference the Oscar-winning journalism film “Spotlight” (for the record, I loved the movie; I’ve seen it three times and even threw a viewing party for my colleagues in Sarajevo).

In the movie, there is a scene set in The Boston Globe’s archive stacks – way behind the presses, back in the bowels of the news building. The four major characters discover that there seems to be a correlation between priests known for molesting children in their parishes and the excuses given in the employee listings for them being on leave from their duties. This scene is the grand reveal of how large and all-encompassing the conspiracy the reporters were dutifully uncovering truly was.

What struck me about this moment, however, was actually the next few minutes. The director created a short montage of scenes with stacked parish registries and journalists hunched over steel-framed desks, lit by lamplight. In these cuts, the journalists are using rulers to go through the registries name by name, line by line, highlighting potential predators and taking notes by hand.

The next scene is them typing every entry into an Excel spreadsheet.

In modern times, a Python script cobbled together in 15 minutes would do in less than one second what took those investigative journalists days, if not a week, to do. And at the end, they’d have the same thing any current reporter would – a spreadsheet of offenders cross-referenced by name and address.

The ability to write these small computer programs is awe-inspiring. It saves untold hours and personal effort; everyone gets home to their families a little bit earlier and more often. The problem is that, these days, the second half of the movie, the part where the editor devotes time and resources to putting boots on the ground, to sending reporters to knock on doors and get interview after interview, is often forgotten. Too often if it doesn’t appear in a Google search, a fact might as well not exist.

Nobody puts “willing to sit in a lawyer’s waiting room for three hours” (like Mike Rezendes is portrayed as doing) on his or her résumé. That part of the muckraking process is often overlooked and instead alluded to by graphs and laundry lists of vague connections. The story gets lost and the reader is flummoxed, at best, by random names and company registries.

I’m not a Luddite. I’m probably the farthest from it you can get. I am convinced that technology, for the time being, can reveal the nugget, not do the reporting. Beats, interviews and persistence, the classic reporter tropes, are still how investigations with true significance are uncovered and finally written.

To the hammer, everything’s a nail. But to the data journalist, everything can’t be a graph.

Some people have criticized the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for withholding the data of the Panama Papers and not doing a complete data dump. I believe they understood what needed to be done to give a life beyond the documents. They knew that local reporters, with their contacts, local sources and understanding, could provide context and follow-through that just running the numbers could never have provided.

Old-school values and practices are just as important as ever. In fact, maybe even more so. Seeing the story through the noise takes training, skill and probably far too many sleepless nights.

Christopher Guess, a computer programmer and photojournalist, is an expert in mobile technology. He also has experience working on media sustainability projects. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via M M.