Data Journalism and the Big Picture

The web-o-sphere this week brought forth a collection of opinions on the value of data journalism and the skills that go with it. To wit:

  • Tim Berners-Lee, he who invented the World Wide Web, told the Guardian that “journalists need to be data-savvy” and that “data-driven journalism is the future.” The story then goes on to question whether data analysis could ever replace traditional reporting.
  • The blog 10,000 Words declared that one of the “5 Myths about digital journalism” is that “journalists must have database development skills” and suggested that most journalists should leave high-level hacking to the experts.
  • Another site, FleetStreetBlues, opined that “amidst all this hype, earnestness and spreadsheet-geekery, here’s the truth about so-called ‘data journalism’. It’s still about the story, stupid.”

There’s been a bunch of reaction to these posts, including a few people pointing out a 1986 Time story that sounds similar to the one this week from the Guardian. And therein lies the problem with all three pieces: None of them benefits from a big-picture, historical perspective on data journalism — not where it came from, not how it’s changed and especially not the massive amount of ground the label covers these days.

We used to call it CAR

Back  when software came on 5.25-inch floppy disks, or maybe before then, the idea of using a PC to “crunch numbers” was christened “computer-assisted reporting.” These days, we call it data journalism because, along the way, it became obvious the old name was anachronistic. As Phil Meyer once said, we don’t talk about telephone-assisted reporting, do we?

When I got into the game — when Paradox was the desktop database manager of choice — our newsroom had a personal computer designated as the “CAR station.” While others worked on dumb terminals connected to a mainframe, I was surfing the web with Netscape and ringing up Paul Overberg for advice on Census data. I was the newsroom data expert — the guy reporters called when they had a spreadsheet on a disk or an idea to get data from city hall.

In that era — with database-driven web startups like spreading cultural revolution — it was easy to foresee a time when reporters wouldn’t just get the occasional spreadsheet but find themselves inundated with data. Thus was born (at least in my sphere) the drive to evangelize CAR in the newsroom. We taught Excel, we sent people to IRE boot camps, we set up presentations showing the kinds of stories journalists were landing with these skills. The message of CAR was about finding stories and using simple tools to do it: spreadsheets, databases, maps, stats.

Now we call it hacking

Soon enough, though, the craft began to change and so did the talk at IRE CAR conferences — especially in the hands-on classes and demos. In Philadelphia in 2002, the hands-on classes mostly covered Access, Excel, SPSS and, for the adventurous, SQL Server. Just a few years later, in Cleveland and Houston, the offerings included sessions on web scraping, Perl, Python, MySQL and Django.

The growth of the web and the availability of data helped push the change. I also suspect that “CAR specialists” who started down the data journalism road in the 1990s had pretty much exhausted the boundaries of Access and Excel and were, as we should have been, on to new things. Either way, by the time PolitiFact won a Pulitzer, the era of news apps was in full bloom and the concept of programmer-journalist was simply the next natural evolution of data journalism. Hello, Hacks/Hackers.

But the message in the CAR (now data journalism) community remained the same: We use these tools to find and tell stories. We use them like we use a telephone. The story is still the thing.

On the outside looking in

Back to the week’s three disparate-yet-related stories, one of which really raised the ire of the aforementioned Pulitzer winner. Each one misses the point because it’s missing that context:

  • Once a pioneer, Sir Berners-Lee is late to the party in declaring data journalism “the future.” That future has passed. The ability to handle data is no longer a skill journalists ought to learn — it’s a basic life skill my kids are learning in middle school. Plus, I cannot think of an instance in the last 15 years where someone in the CAR community suggested that data journalism was a replacement for shoe-leather reporting. That the writer raises the issue tells me he’s reacting to the hype of Berners-Lee’s statement, not assessing the reality of what’s practiced.
  • The CAR/data journalism community’s always been heavily geared toward helping people build these skills. The entry-level boot camps at each year’s IRE CAR conference walk people through Excel and Access — great places to start. But I don’t tell people there’s a limit on what they can do. In the same way that the craft as a whole has evolved, journalists who start down this road usually move on to more complex skills. The only limits on people are the ones they place on themselves. Indeed, the only myth that needs busting here is the one that says you have to be Einstein to learn this stuff or have some magical left brain/right brain balance. No, you just have to be persistent.
  • “It’s still about the story.” It’s never not been. The panel descriptions for the last 10 years’ worth of IRE CAR conferences speak for themselves.

If anything, this collection of stories should remind us that more than ever, we need organizations such as IRE, Hacks/Hackers and others to not only impart skills but provide the context for why they’re so desperately important.

20 responses to “Data Journalism and the Big Picture”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Derek Willis, Steve Doig and Journalist's Toolbox, Anthony DeBarros. Anthony DeBarros said: Blog post: Data Journalism and the Big Picture. […]

  2. Elwin Green says:

    “These days, we call it data journalism because, along the way, it became obvious the old name was anachronistic. As Phil Meyer once said, we don’t talk about telephone-assisted reporting, do we?”

    The analogy suggests to me that “data journalism” is just a new anachronism. Shouldn’t “journalism” imply the skillful use of data just as much as it implies the skillful use of the telephone? If it doesn’t yet, when do you think it will?

  3. Anthony says:

    Elwin, I think you’re right. I look forward to the day when the ability to work with data is an assumed part of the journalist’s toolkit and no special label is needed. I don’t think we’re there yet, though.

  4. I agree with you in several points. Journalism is having such a hard time not only because they are not using a “tool” “properly” but because they (we) seem to have lost the ability to merge our how-to-use-a-tool skills with our how-to-engage-the-audience skills.

    We are seduced by that technology’s sparkle but it seems we are not able to remember that each predecessor was as seducing as the newest one. And, with the risk to sound darwinian, the key to survive was versatility and adaptation.

    But, I’d like to add two more points:

    – Journalism’s biggest problem: pride. We started to act as a closed group. Treating IT guys as “nerds” instead of learning and calling them “technicians” in a derogatory way. Now we woke up a lil bit late. Cause, you start wondering: Why WaPo and other newspapers didnt call people like Zeldman to improve the websites?. Same with Dan Cenderholm et al.

    – Journalism was popular because it explained, teach and solve things. Journos used to understand complex things and translate them into simple easy-to-digest facts. Thats why people use to need journos. Now, journalism brings old and obvious news, telling the same you can find using Google and we are becoming unable to explain complex things (especially tech-related).

    Thanks for giving me an excuse to talk about journalism.

  5. James Wilkerson says:

    The CAR people I respect (yes I’m old enough to still call it CAR) always say that data journalism and journalism are the same thing.

    I find it fascinating – and more than a little disappointing – that we still find the need to draw a distinction and try to explain the value of CAR.

    When I was learning Access back in 1999 I thought, “Here’s my job security.” But at this point when I meet a journalist who doesn’t know how to use a spreadsheet I just cringe and wonder why they don’t care enough about the craft to even try.

  6. Laura Lorek says:

    Every journalist needs to take charge of his or her own career and learn as many skills as possible to succeed in a highly competitive story-telling environment. Your education doesn’t end when you leave college no matter what profession you are in. As a young journalist, I enrolled in a four-day course given by Investigative Reporters and Editors on computer assisted reporting. It was one of the best moves I made during my career.

    I would also suggest journalists learn as much as they can about programming, emerging technology and new journalistic methods. If you don’t evolve, you become Andy Rooney. And that job is already filled.

  7. Anthony says:

    Fully agree, Laura. The amount and complexity of data available to journalists increases each year. I wouldn’t expect that to change. Journalists who equip themselves to work with data are making a wise investment.

  8. […] (and don’t need) to know, and j-prof Mindy McAdams and journalist Brian Manzullo chimed in. Anthony DeBarros and Robert Hernandez turned the discussion toward data journalism, with Hernandez asserting that […]

  9. […] most notably from Andy Boyle, digital developer with The New York Times Regional Media Group, Anthony DeBarros, senior database editor at USA TODAY and Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News at The New York […]

  10. Anthony says:

    When do you think every reporter will have the newsroom equivalent of Adobe Creative Suite on their desk?

  11. Anthony says:

    Not sure that will ever happen — nor do I think it should happen.

    Journalists certainly need tools to take photos and video, edit for publication and then post. But many journalists will end up using powerful and lightweight browser- or mobile-based apps to do a lot of that work. Right now, a reporter can write, take photos, edit images and post to the web with an iPhone. The better those kinds of apps get, the less likely news organizations are going to spring for expensive software licenses for the entire staff. Packages like Adobe Creative Suite will probably be limited, as they typically are now, to the newsroom creative experts.

    Of course, there are open-source options as well for a lot of that if newsrooms choose to go that way.

  12. […] เมื่อคุณมองไปที่วารสารศาสตร์ข้อมูลและภาพกว้าง เหมือนกับที่ Anthony DeBarros แห่งหนังสือพิมพ์ USA Today ได้ทำและเขียนในบล็อกของเขาเมื่อเดือนพฤศจิกายนที่ผ่านมา มันชัดเจนว่าเทคโนโลยีต่าง ๆ ในขณะนี้ เป็นพัฒนาการของการเล่าเรื่องที่ถูกยกระดับขึ้นด้วยเทคโนโลยี ซึ่งสืบย้อนไปได้ถึงการใช้คอมพิวเตอร์ช่วยในการรายงานข่าว (computer-assisted reporting – CAR). […]

  13. […] because they know that collaboration and information is the key to selling what it is they do (e.g Anthony DeBarros, database editor at USA Today). They are still trying to sell damned good journalism to the media […]

  14. […] because they know that collaboration and information is the key to selling what it is they do (e.g Anthony DeBarros, database editor at USA Today). They are still trying to sell damned good journalism to the media […]

  15. […] 相較於Hacks/Hackers令程式設計師與記者共聚一堂,為龐大資料增添新聞色彩,OpenData.mx更著重於從民間、政治與網路圈招募熱衷資料的人士,第一次活動為期兩天,主辦單位有二,一為資訊透明與人權非政府組織Fundar,二為提供資料收集與分析工具的營利新創公司Citivox,與會者分成多個小組,運用不同資料組,希望製作出簡易應用程式及圖文傳達模式,進而發展成更大型且長久的計畫。其中一個團隊以圖表呈現世界銀行的支出資料,顯示該組織在墨西哥開銷大多與公共安全有關: […]

  16. […] pretende acercar programadores y periodistas con el fin de  proporcionar un contexto periodístico a los grandes datos, entonces tal vez está más centrado en convocar entusiastas de los datos de la […]

  17. Howdy just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in Opera. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you know. The style and design look great though! Hope you get the issue fixed soon. Thanks

  18. Anthony says:


    Hmm. Not sure about the Opera experience. According to Google Analytics, Opera accounts for 1% of this site’s users, and so I haven’t made it a priority to browser test.

  19. […] you read Anthony DeBarros’ post on CAR and data journalism in 2010, you’d be connected to the past, but it’s fair to guess that most people who […]

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