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Posted at 2:57 PM ET, 11/30/2010

Data analysis and the future of journalism

By Andy Alexander

Sunday’s column on numerical errors in Post stories also noted that proficiency with numbers will increasingly be important for journalists. It said that, “in the digital age, with a growing amount of raw data available online from the government and other sources, numerical literacy has never been more important to journalism.”

That point was underscored recently in the United Kingdom by Tim Berners-Lee, widely seen as the inventor of the World Wide Web, who argued in a speech that the future of journalism is tied closely to data analysis.

According to the Guardian, Berners-Lee said: “Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

“But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyze it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

In the United States and other democratic countries, the push for greater public access to government information means that digitized datasets increasingly will be available. Journalists with the expertise to evaluate data will be able to provide the kind of public service reports that news consumers crave. Those exclusives can range from revealing wasteful government spending to identifying judges’ sentencing patterns.

Already, groups like the Sunlight Foundation are using technology to slice and dice government data to show the influence of campaign contributions on decisions by elected officials. News organizations, and their reporters and editors, should be moving more rapidly in the same direction.

My column suggested remedial math training for The Post’s newsroom. It also said The Post should pay “heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.”

Looking ahead, data analysis should become one of the accepted skill sets for new generations of journalists. Many communication colleges already offer elective courses or seminars in computer-assisted reporting. But all of them should think mandatory training in data journalism, as well as advanced degrees for that specialization. The Guardian noted that City University in London is now offering an advanced degree in interactive journalism, with instruction in “sourcing, reporting and presenting stories through data-driven journalism, and visualizing and presenting data (including databases, mapping and other interactive graphics).”

Scott R. Maier, a University of Oregon associate professor of journalism who specializes in newsroom numeracy, said that if you ask a typical group of journalism students whether they would like to avoid training in math, “two thirds of the class will raise their hands.” But, he added, acquiring proficiency in math and data analysis is essential for the next generation of journalists. “You can’t avoid it today in journalism,” he said.

Sunday’s column prompted about a half dozen offers from current or retired math or statistics instructors who offered to conduct training in The Post’s newsroom. But I also heard from a few who suggested the newsroom needs remedial training in other areas.

“I was gratified to see your column,” e-mailed David Hedrick of Gettysburg, Penn. “Now I suggest you explore the geographic literacy of the Post’s writers and editors.” He was upset by a story in Saturday’s Post newspaper that indicated Norfolk is in southwestern Virginia. (The online version of the story correctly says it is in southeastern Virginia.)

That’s a good topic for another column.

By Andy Alexander  | November 30, 2010; 2:57 PM ET
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Statistical literacy is the key to truly professional journalism. The “he said/she said” fight reporting which dominates our “news” is too easy to replicate in an environment of hyper-competition in information. Those who lack statistical literacy are just voices in the babble in which volume wins. Authoritative independent reporting that people pay for has to be based on facts that are hard to derive and the only way to make sense out of lots of facts is to employ statistical analysis.

Posted by: RogerWilson1 | December 3, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Data driven journalism is very important. It can help people balance their opinions, and understand stories a lot better. It also helps keep people in society honest.

One of the errors that's tempting is data omission. Extremism might attract attention for the 'oh look that man is trying to spit fire' factor, but we might rather hear about what sort of common sense drives the majority views too.

Especially in political matters what often makes news are statements of shocking idiocy combined with bad data. However somehow, perhaps amidst Fox's culture of treating themselves and others as though they were the groveling serfs to a republican aristocracy, the media has lost the courage to compare politicians statements to reality and say "this is not true". Instead we see a lot of hemming and hawing and the avoidance of confrontation with hard truths.

No, we're all supposed to accept it when leaders lie and say that tax cuts for billionaires help everyone else. Even though its' a lie, and even though all the data says they are not telling the truth. That's just one example of where there's a whole lot of fail going on with hard data.

Posted by: Nymous | December 6, 2010 3:18 AM | Report abuse

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