The Basics of Data Journalism [VIDEO]

Apr 15, 2013

An example of advanced data journalism from StateImpact Pennsylvania.

When you say "data journalism," people often think of wiz-bang apps with all sorts of interactive features and sleek graphics. That's part of it for sure, but there is so much more that data can do, including becoming part of your daily routine. Those fancy apps, built with programmers, developers and data geeks can be really intimidating. But don’t let it scare you.

There are a gazillion things you can do without having a sliver of those computer programming skills—things that will help you hold public agencies accountable, increase government transparency and inform the public. 

Think of data as another source that allows you to speak with more authority, see beyond the clutter to the trends and facts that provide more information to the public than is otherwise available. Data is a powerful source that you are missing out on if you don’t try.

So, how do you find these kinds of stories that utilize data? Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet. No pill you can take to make you start thinking like a data journalist. We'll walk through the basics here and provide you with external reading and tools that can help you become a data expert. Where do we start? By finding the data.

Five Ways to Find the Data
Same as any other story: with your journalist's curiosity, by following tips, fact-checking claims and observation. Remember, data can give you insights, but is very rarely THE story. Start by look  for clues that data exists – like online forms, charts, statistics. And Look for things that are quantified and recorded somewhere. Follow the paper trail and thinking about where this information goes.

Here is a screen grab of the Google's advanced search function. Use it to find specific file types of data on a certain url.

  1. Use Google's Advanced Search, which allows you to search for specific file types such as spreadsheets (.xls), geodata (.kml) and .pdfs. You can narrow results down to specific urls or domain names.
  2. Call the agency you're interested in and see how they keep the data and if they have it online. Operate under the assumption that it is public information. Even if they agree to send it over, be sure to send an email outlining exactly what you want.
  3. Make your request clear and focused. You may also wish to explicitly ask for information in ‘disaggregated’ or ‘granular’ form.)
  4. If you need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, check out the law before you make your request.(Some states have digital records provisions and only have to give you data in the original format.)
  5. Ask academics, industry folks, watchdog groups, activists and worker bees where to find what you're after.

You've got the Data, Now Report With It
Once you have the data, analyze it. And we're talking about understanding every field in a spreadsheet. Know where it came from and check the math for errors. And then do the following:

  • Get data dictionary and/or code sheet to help interpret it.
  • Interview your data. And take notes.
  • Ask it simple questions to start out with. (look at averages, maximums, minimums, top tens, etc.).
  • Look at different ways to measure it (per capita, rate of change, change over time, etc.).
  • Put it into groups (geographical, historical, demographic) and compare those.
  • Approach data with caution (human error happens). Use tools like Open Refine to help check it.

The Basic Tools for Data JournalismYou've got the data. You've analyzed it. Now you want to do a little more with it. Here are the essential tools to help you tell the story.

Excel: Start with the simple actions like adding and subtracting and then move to pivot tables. They allows users to count the number of times something comes up, aggregate data or work out averages. (Tip: the "Help" function is Excel is really useful for explaining pivot tables.)
 Google Fusion: This is a free, versatile program that offers several functions (merge files, create graphs, charts, maps, filterable tables). You can easily share it and collaborate in it with coworkers.
 Google Charts: This is also free and helps you visualize the data.
 And, if you're feeling sporty, here are some advanced tools to play with:

To examine, migrate data: TextWrangler
To clean data: Open Refine
To do database analysis: Access, MySQL
To do GIS analysis: ArcGIS, QGIS

Here are great resources for learning about data reporting:

Here are great places to start looking for data:
 State Agency Databases wiki compiled by the ALA

American FactFinder (from the US Census) has all sorts of federal data.

NICAR’s database library (if you have the $)

A governmental agency near you!

There's a lot in here, but hopefully it's not daunting. If you want a more thorough walkthrough, check out the webinar video below that features Jessica Pupovac, Data and Digital Coordinator for StateImpact. Happy data hunting.


The Basics of Data Journalism (April 11, 2013) from NPR Digital Services on Vimeo.