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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Brian Williams, Dan Rather...and Data Journalism

News media outlets continue to struggle through embarrassing occasions of flagship news presenters such as Brian Williams and Dan Rather losing their credibility. Williams and Rather were powerful representatives of trust and longtime commitment to journalism. These journalists allegedly made conscious decisions to present unreliable stories. Both men shared the same outcome: their professional careers toppled.

The Excitement of Data Journalism…and the Looming Failure

We can make journalism more democratic and participatory through data journalism. No longer will we have to depend upon handful of news outlets whose content is driven by advertising revenue and subject to the filter of producers and entrenched news readers. Instead, independent teams can work with deep troves of public data to reveal unseen trends and truths that matter.

In order to release, analyze, and present the massive surge of information that is becoming available to us, we have to use code. It's the first tool we have to use to convert the noise to signal. But it seems that we have lost perspective on the remaining steps, process and overall governance of what is good journalism versus mere presentation of data for the sake of supporting a point of view. Are we reducing our definition of data journalism down to...coding? 

This is a theme which I see repeated again and again in Twitter, blog discussions, and general purpose data journalism propaganda. It was good however, to see that Paul Bradshaw created a more thoughtful discussion in his blog. It's a discussion between well known and respected Alberto Cairo and other contributors on the importance of coding as a data journalism skill.

Points made:
  • Developing a story is important
  • The key skill for a data journalist is knowing whether the data in question is actually interesting
  • A journalist should know some basic CS and coding
There's two points still missing. First, journalism is a discipline and it's why we have whole schools of higher learning dedicated to the craft. Second, in order for us to be engaged and to be given value, journalism must be credible. Otherwise, we will be no better off than our current state. We refer to journalism as the fourth branch of government, and for good reason.

The Common Thread through Journalism and Credibility

If you Google "Journalism" and "Credibility" you'll get plenty of results that refer to an important word: sources. Data provenance is critical. Clean, credible sources are key to journalism and all other professions in which we are entrusted to tell stories and communicate points of view with data.

But when it comes to data journalism, does anyone have a good example of discussion and attention to the credibility of the data, and its provenance? Or even a solid method for dissecting what the data means? Field by field? Record by record? A method for building a validated data dictionary, prior to taking the data and shaping it into a story? 

Readers: what are your experiences and suggestions? 

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