Twelve Tips for Getting Started With Data Journalism

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Editor’s note: Nils Mulvad, co-founder and board member of GIJN, ‏and Helena Bengtsson, editor for the Data Projects Team at The Guardian, share twelve tips on how to use data for stories. These are being presented at the 2015 conference of Netzwerk Recherche, Germany’s investigative journalism association, in Hamburg this weekend. 

1. Begin with Small Projects – and Excel

There are many risks for errors in datajournalism. Begin with data and tools you can manage. Excel is pretty much 90 percent of all datajournalism. It counts for the basic importing and exporting of data, cleaning, sorting and structuring. It is the main tool, before importing data into other tools.

2. Learn Tools of Journalists

For journalists to understand the principles of calculating tools, you normally need a journalist as a teacher. It is often necessary to relate the concrete functions to journalistic tasks.

3. Check, and Check and Check for Errors

There are nearly always error in data. Also when you get it from estimated authorities. You have the responsibility to get rid of the errors, before presenting it to the audience. Count totals – check if all is included or you miss something.

4. Make a Public Documentation of your Data-Work

Describe step by step what you have done, so others can check and do the same. It’s normally a good idea to share your datawork with sources before publishing. For checking errors and agreeing on methods – and by doing that to avoid errors and critic of methods instead of discussion on content.

5. Use Errors to Get Better Internal Sources

When you find errors in data, use them as a way to get a better relation to the people working with data at the authorities or institution, that have delivered data.

6. Get the Data

You can get the data just by asking, and they will email them to you. Else you can download them from the web, scrape them or get them using FOI-requests (Freedom Of Information). Develop and tune these methods, just as you do with interviews. All are journalistic methods.

numbers7. Analyze the Data – Go for Stories

Much datajournalism is too much data and too little journalism. We do this for stories. If there isn’t a story, don’t tell it. Find the stories and tell them one by one. Using interactive graphics is the same. Break it down to one clear story for each graphic or map. And tell it, so it is possible to get it. Don’t mix everything together in longreads, with too many angles.

8. What Are Really the Story – Using Extremes

Think and rethink to get the stories in the data – and then check them against reality. The best way to describe stories is in the extremes. Use ranking as one of the best tools – to find errors and to explain the reality. That is journalism.

9. Data Journalism Sometimes Starts With the Story – and Sometimes with the Data

Many journalists think you always should start with a story and then build data around it. But there is no reason for only doing data journalism one way. Sometimes you get a good set of data, and the story is obvious. Other time you have to dive down in the data for seeing possible stories and then check if they are true.

10. Make Data-Cleaning Yourself

When there are no data, structuring your own dataset might be your way to make the most incredible story. Looking down on data also gives you a feeling of content, stories and errors. Don’t always leave the hard work to researchers. Love your data.

11. Get Rid of the Numbers

Data Journalism is most often about humans. Get rid of the numbers and find the humans, who are the best examples of your data. Actually sometimes zero numbers are the best way to do a dataJOURNALISM story. You then might only include the data in a graphic. Or keep them for later. If you can’t find humans to explain your findings, they might be wrong.

12. Work Together and Share

There is a great history of sharing by the people in the datajournalism-community. This is the only way we can keep up with the speed of the development of tools and methods. This way of sharing is more common here than in perhaps any other area in journalism.

nils_mulvad29_storNils Mulvad is a co-founder and board member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, as well as Investigative Reporting Denmark. He is also editor at Kaas & Mulvad, a data journalism consulting firm. He was CEO for the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting 2001-2006 and European journalist of the year in 2006. 

HelenaHelena Bengtsson is editor for the Data Projects team at the Guardian. She was formerly the database editor for the news and current affairs departments at Sveriges Television in Sweden. In 2006 and 2007, she was a database editor at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

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