Data journalism can be a complex field to navigate. Compared with traditional reporting, data-driven stories require more time to hunt down data, not to mention the technological skills to visualize that data into a graphic that will be meaningful for readers. While the field is growing, news organizations in some parts of the world have struggled to tap into the potential data journalism has to improve news and storytelling.
ICFJ Knight Fellow and Kenyan journalist and editor Catherine Gicheru has been trying to make data journalism a staple in Kenyan newsrooms, but her efforts have often been met with resistance. Despite the challenges, Gicheru and other journalists believe their work is slowly helping journalists and news managers understand the potential for data journalism to improve their country’s news industry.
Gicheru straddles the generational divide between traditional print journalism and digital media. Though trained as a conventional print journalist, Gicheru now promotes the benefits of using data and interactives to improve stories. She frequently works with technologists to supplement reporters’ writing with interactive graphics, which distill large sets of data into more readily understandable visuals. Throughout her time promoting data journalism Gicheru has faced an uphill battle to convince news managers in Kenya that it is worth the extra investment in resources.
“Until [news managers] see the benefit of [data journalism], they are not going to let the reporters spread their wings and take the risk that a lot of them consider data journalism to be,” she said.
She acknowledged that collecting data can be challenging, noting that the data needed for a story is often spread out among various sources, and tracking it down can be time-consuming. In the hopes of helping newsrooms embrace data journalism, Gicheru teaches fellow journalists how and where they can find the data they need to write expansive stories told through numbers.
“I try and deal with them at an individual level rather than at an institutional level because institutions tend to be very slow moving,” she said. “It’s like moving a mountain. But individuals, you can change them. And changing one individual, changing two individuals within an institution, it might actually change the institution.”
Verah Okeyo, a journalist with Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation, has thrived in producing health-focused data journalism with Gicheru’s help, citing her mentorship as an important influence in her work.
In addition to directing her toward raw data sources and connecting her with technologists, Okeyo said Gicheru has helped her write about familiar topics with fresh perspectives. She cited statistical reports about government spending as an example of data that may seem banal but can reveal important stories.
“The greatest thing [Catherine does] would be to make you see that there is a story,” she said. “You are so used to these reports being given out by the government and by agencies every single day, so sometimes you completely overlook them...I think that for me, that was the greatest thing: a totally normal everyday story and trying to look at it from a different angle using numbers.”
Okeyo noted that data-driven journalism about government spending has also prompted more public discussion than previous, more conventional reporting.
“[With] data, people have started questioning [government spending] and saying ‘Why didn’t you spend this money on this important thing rather than using it on some amorphous thing, like entertainment and tea,” she said.
Gicheru said she believes a big part of this response has to do with infographics’ ability to simplify otherwise complicated statistics.
Others in the country are also beginning to recognize the potential for data-driven stories to improve journalism. In November, Okeyo received a media award at the inaugural Open Data Awards held by the Kenya Open Data Initiative in recognition of her story on HIV infection, abortion rates in Western Kenya and whether or not sex education should be available to adolescents.
Unfortunately, due to limited access to technologists, journalists in Kenya have been hindered in their capacity to emulate Gicheru and Okeyo’s successes.
“The journalists I’ve worked with are really keen to continue and they really want to do it, but I guess one of the hangups they have is that they do not have dedicated tech people to work with,” Gicheru said. She likens herself to a matchmaker in this respect, connecting journalists with technologists to create graphics for their stories.
Okeyo had three pieces of advice for those looking to get involved in data journalism, the first being a change in attitude toward the use of data. She believes that while numbers can seem dry and boring, they are the basis for important stories—something she hopes more journalists in Kenya will recognize. She also recommended reading other media organizations that create stories with data. She acknowledged borrowing many ideas from other sites, singling out The Guardian’s data journalism in particular. Lastly, she recommended attending meetings and forums to connect with technologists who can create graphics for stories. She said these types of forums are common, but that it requires initiative to seek them out.
Despite the obstacles ahead, the current signs for data journalism’s growth in Kenya are promising. Both Okeyo and Gicheru believe that a sea change in attitudes toward data journalism and greater access to technologists are not far off. However, Okeyo stresses that journalists can’t forget about the fundamentals of their craft and should use infographics to supplement their reporting, not eclipse it.
“At the end of the day, a journalist has to remain a journalist,” she said.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Sebastian Sikora.