African newsrooms shy away from data

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Newsrooms need data journalism to improve the quality and credibility of their work, writes Paul Wafula 

Paul Wafula

Paul Wafula

Data journalism is a news source that journalists will need to make use of not only to reinvent their field but also to find exclusive stories that can help sell their publications.

Sadly Kenyan newsrooms have, however, not fully embraced it. There is scepticism that stories  can come out of anything other than an interview or report.  Some editors also feel that data journalism supersedes the role of an expert and worry that if the data is something a journalist has scrapped on their own there will be nobody to attribute it to.

The need to always attribute to an external source is borne out of a fear that if problems arise  with the data, publications will not be able to say this is not our report but someone else’s. But I believe that data journalism helps journalists to take ownership of their work and provides a platform for them to be more transparent. This can only help to develop the industry and generate topical and exclusive stories.

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Data journalism also certainly helps to build relationships with experts and officials that can only strengthen a journalist’s list of contacts and give them credibility. Why do I say that? When I worked on my story on health budgets in Kenyan counties I relied on experts in health statistics. Different government departments and agencies produce different bits of the same data but it’s not coordinated or integrated. I approached each one and by pulling their data together on the same spreadsheet I was able to collate statistics on  what each county had budgeted for health and if this fit the national health goals. But this wasn’t my only stop.

I approached some organisations and researchers who helped point out what was missing in my data and how to analyse it correctly, which eliminated inaccuracies. Journalists must be aware that they can tell a wrong story from the data that they have. Bouncing the story to someone  helps to eliminate problems of having inaccurate or incomplete data and build relationships with people who can point journalists to other datasets that they can use for future stories. It will also reassure their editors and company lawyers who may worry of lawsuits.

   Numbers don’t lie

Data journalism  also raises the integrity to stories and  makes it difficult to dispute what papers publish. I found this difference when I published my health and other stories. The data was indisputable. It spoke for itself resulting in counties revising their budgets. Government public relations machines can easily deny or dispute stories if they are not supported by any data.

But with data, a story is not only credible but can generate impact that allows journalists to effectively play their role as society’s watchdogs. My story led to two strikes by nurses and doctors because it made it clear that hospitals and counties would not able to pay their salaries because of the budget deficits. This shows the story’s  impact and also illustrates how data journalism can be used to predict a crisis before it happens.

Data journalism is the future. In this age of social media journalists need to reinvent  news reporting. Data journalism makes the reinvention possible as it allows publications to provide their readers with stories they can not find elsewhere.

Paul Wafula is a data journalist for The Standard in Kenya. His infographics on how the 47 Kenyan counties had under-budgeted on their health spending in their rush to meet the 30 June 2013 deadline set by the Public Finance Management Act  is here on his blog.