In a New York Times investigation into the Syrian government’s network of torture chambers, reporter Anne Barnard pointed to the important role data played in calculating the human toll.
“We redoubled efforts to cover the story, as human rights groups steadily compiled data on dozens of torture facilities, tens of thousands of disappeared Syrians and thousands of executions of civilian oppositionists after sham trials,” wrote Barnard, a former New York Times Beirut bureau chief and veteran of covering the armed conflict.
Her reporting noted: “Nearly 128,000 have never emerged, and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally. Nearly 14,000 were `killed under torture.’”
Statistics on conflicts are widely available, but how do journalists identify the right datasets to use? How do they evaluate data sources among the many out there? What should they be looking for?
“More data is not necessarily better data. We need to know where it is coming from, what is included and what is not. Reporters should not take all data as unbiased facts,” said Andreas Foro Tollefsen, senior researcher for the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, a main player in the conflict data field.
Reviewing leading producers of conflict event datasets and their specialties helps narrow the search. Below are three examples of data collection projects often cited in media reports and scholarly studies.
- Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP): Datasets on conflict and peacekeeping including peace agreements, intrastate armed conflict, non-state conflict, one-sided violence, and conflict termination. Offers datasets on organized violence and peacemaking, which can be downloaded for free through the UCDP downloads website. Illustrative charts, graphs, and maps are also available.
- Armed Conflict Location & Event Dataset (ACLED): Described as a disaggregated data collection, analysis and crisis mapping platform. Collects real-time data on the locations, dates, actors, fatalities, and types of reported political violence and protest events across the globe. Users can explore data through an interactive dashboard.
- Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO): Explores how conflicts erupt and can be resolved; investigates how different kinds of violence affect people and examines how societies tackle crises. Their data projects aid in the study of the duration of violence and track figures for yearly combat deaths. Active research projects are listed alphabetically and include dozens of topics.
How does this data translate into real-world news reporting?
Data can show trends, maps and patterns, highlighting whether violence has increased or decreased in a region, and how that relates to conditions, such as migration or displacement, that impact civilians. A story based on ACLED data, for instance, showed how conflict in northern Mozambique displaced over half a million people.
Researchers from Save the Children used data from PRIO in combination with other sources in their recent report, “Sexual violence against children in conflict.” Statistics showed that nearly 10 times more children are at risk now than three decades ago when the toll was 8.5 million.
The Washington Post used ACLED data to explore COVID-19’s impact on the risk of violent conflict. They tracked the number of conflict events over time to see whether trends changed after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March 2020, or after countries declared lockdowns.
The following are tips from experts on how to evaluate data for accuracy, reliability and fairness.
Harvard University research fellow Kelly Greenhill has explored the misuse of conflict statistics and how miscalculations can have “counterproductive consequences.” Getting it wrong might, for instance, help prolong wars or give governments an excuse not to act.
What can journalists do to get it right? Greenhill suggests that journalists ask the following questions:
- What are the sources of the numbers?
- What definitions are the sources employing, and what exactly is being measured?
- What are the interests of those providing the numbers?
- What do these actors stand to gain or lose if the statistics in question are, or are not, embraced and accepted?
- What methodologies were employed in acquiring the numbers?
- Do potentially competing figures exist, and if so, what is known about their sources, measurement and methodologies?
Assessing similarities and differences in datasets is another method of evaluation. In a report, Roudabeh Kishi, ACLED’s director of research and innovation, compared conflict data from several well-known sources. Among chief indicators, she noted:
- Sourcing: “Extensive sourcing — including from local partners and media in local languages — provides the most thorough and accurate information on political violence and demonstrations, as well as the most accurate presentation of the risks that civilians experience in their homes and communities.”
- Transparency: “Datasets must be usable if they are to be relied upon for regular analysis, and users should be able to access every detail of how conflict data are coded and collected.”
- Coverage and classification: “Clear, coherent, and correct classification are important for users because conflicts are not homogenous: disorder events differ in their frequency, sequences, and intensity.”
“It’s important to remember these are different projects with different methodologies, definitions, usually based on a specific mandate,” Kishi explained. “Pay attention to what sources the datasets are using. That makes a really big difference.”
- ACLED’s Ten Conflicts to Worry About in 2021: ACLED advises accessing data directly through the “export tool” and finding information about methodology under “Resource Library.” A video walks users through the data collection process.
- The UCDP’s Conflict Encyclopedia: Describes itself as a “main provider of data on organized violence and the oldest ongoing data collection project for civil war, with a history of almost 40 years.” Offers a web-based system, including ready-made datasets on organized violence and peacemaking free of charge
- Amnesty International: Offers two free courses on open source investigations in four languages, including Arabic, Persian, English and Spanish. Courses act as guides to using open source research methods in practice, with a focus on human rights investigation and advocacy.
Sherry Ricchiardi Ph.D. is the co-author of ICFJ's Disaster and Crisis Coverage guide and international media trainer who has worked with journalists around the world on conflict reporting, trauma and safety issues.