Before you fetch that data, a few principles

This is one of a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows describing their experiences and sharing their knowledge with the community. Fellow Lam Thuy Vo is an associate producer for National Public Radio’s Planet Money.

For the past three years, I’ve been a videographer through and through with only smaller excursions into the world of data visualization (although I never really stopped consuming them). The last time I worked on extensive graphics was eons ago in Internet terms — the distant year of 2008 when I was tinkering around with Adobe Illustrator to sketch out corn prices in an elaborate “charticle,” the crossbreed between a chart and article.

But I wanted to rekindle that passion of mine. I’ve recently started working more with infographics and wanted to educate myself. So I talked to two former colleagues who KNOW what they are doing and have spent the past few years in data journalism — from mapping data points, to finding stories in deluges of data, to making sure each is visually pleasing and clear.

What struck me about the conversations was that I was not given a long talk about the newest tools or the troves of data that governments and organizations have started pouring out in recent years. The points that really stuck were principles and ethics that surround non-linear storytelling and data literacy.

Data is not the answer; story is

One of the main things that came up while chatting with my former Wall Street Journal journalist coder and now Columbia prof Susan McGregor is that data has become quite the buzzword recently. So much so that the New York Times declared this “The Age of Big Data”.

But what Susan cautioned me about was the need to go beyond finding ginormous data sets and do the same kind of reporting that any thorough and skeptical journalist would do: Find the story! It’s one thing to do “data-dumping” graphics, meaning graphics that visualize a set of statistics, but it’s another to actually find relations and stories within that data that tell you something interesting, surprising or new.

And beyond that, it’s also about finding the right kinds of data and looking outside what government departments provide. “Data are answers to an interview that someone else conducted,” Susan said.

Her statement was confirmed when I read The Guardian’s Facts Are Sacred: The Power of Data, a short e-book about some of the more recent projects the newspaper has done. One of the cases looks at its work during the London riots and illustrates just how much work went into requesting documents from the Ministry of Justice that detailed where convicted rioters came from. This data was paired with census information about the neighborhoods where these rioters lived, allowing for a glimpse into who they were.

Data as part of The Story

I also spoke to Albert Sun, a former colleague at the Wall Street Journal who just moved on to the New York Times (helping to create this excellent live platform for its Oscars coverage). He said that one of the interesting current issues journalists are dealing with is “how to integrate data more closely into other types of stories that are not grand interactive graphics set-pieces.”

There’s lots of potential “for putting data and multimedia inline,” he said. In other words: there have been many data-heavy infographics that are standalone pieces but there’s also an art to integrating what many news editors now define as “separate art” into the medium of text and have it flow within the story and interact with the written word.

This is an approach that the iPad long-form magazine Atavist is trying to take, as the magazine’s co-founder and creative director Jefferson Rabb explained during a Hacks/Hackers meeting in New York last week. The magazine is trying to integrate its multimedia and infographic elements as smoothly as possible to avoid having content feel like an interruption and, instead, make it part of the flow of the experience.

Come to our free data journalism event!

During a caffeine-fueled nerd session, Susan and I decided we should put on an event about data literacy. And so we are.

Please join us March 28 at the Columbia Journalism School for “Doing Data Journalism: It’s Not Just Numbers” as we host the Wall Street Journal’s technology editor and columnist Julia Angwin, ProPublica’s editor of news applications Scott Klein, the New York Times’ interactive news editor Aron Pilhofer and data journalist Maurice Tamman. It’s free!

Slide photo is by Jer Thorp via Flickr.