Research Methods: Data Journalism

Chris Knox

Data Editor at the New Zealand Herald (in August 2019)

20 September, 2019

Research Methods in Journalism


Chris Knox

Data Editor at the New Zealand Herald

What is data journalism?

Paul Bradshaw from Birmingham City University says:

Data can be the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told — or it can be both.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism says:

Data journalism is simply journalism.

The former is a new and trendy term but ultimately, it is just a way of describing journalism in the modern world.

Learning goals

Practical skills

Mindset skills

  • Confidence to source and use data in a story
    • Data is not scary
  • Data is (just) another source
    • Just like other sources data must be treated fairly and in context

One number in isolation is almost certainly misleading

Why use data in stories?

  • Context
  • Trust
  • Clarity and/or conciseness
  • Engagement

What does data give the narrative?

Narrative/Cognitive tension?

Not sure exactly what to call it - but I think it is important.

Data is a social product

Sometimes what isn’t measured is more interesting that what is.

Women’s work - 1891 vs today

Ethnicity in New Zealand 2001 to 2018

Source: @Thoughtfulnz


What roles does data have in journalism?

Chart choice

  • Different charts will highlight different aspects of your data more effectively.
  • Choose the chart that shows the aspect of the data that you are interested in
  • Line and Bar charts are often a safe choice
  • Take care with maps and pie charts

FT Visual Vocabulary

Bad or deceiving charts

  • Charts and graphs can be used to deceive
    • Don’t do this.

The best way to get a sense for bad charts is to peruse or /r/dataisugly. There is also a good writeup here

The most common bad things are:

  • Incorrect, missing, or misleading labels
  • Inconsistenct scales
  • Truncating scales
  • Comparing things that shouldn’t be
  • Too many things

A few rules

  • Barcharts always start at 0
  • Line charts don’t need to start at 0, but always ask yourself if the range you select is going to make an insignificant change look important
  • Only use pie charts for
    parts of a whole
    and only when there are less than 5 categories
  • Avoid maps for showing quantities

New Zealand is a mess (this doesn’t cover DHBs, Police Districts, Civil Defense, or Fire and Emergency areas)

There are no suburbs

Ask for help! - the Figure.NZ really want to help

Also take a look at Figure.NZ Places

All summary statistics hide things

The mean and standard deviation are the same for each of these graphs