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.

Crucial elements of data journalism

Data tools and advice

Data journalism is a form of investigative journalism that tells a story through graphs, maps and other infographics. Peter Aldhous, a US-based journalist, says it is also a form of investigative journalism. It isn’t just about the figures but a good data story is a combination of various elements that are explored below.

Know where to find data 

Knowing where to find data is crucial

William Shubert, a senior project coordinator at the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), says knowing where to find is a useful skill for data journalists.

Adi Eyal, the director for Code for South Africa, an organisation pushing for open data, says the starting point in looking for data is online.

Finding data online is ideal for journalists working in Africa where some governments have put controls on the type of information that can be released.

Eyal’s organisation created a site that provides information about ward councillors in Western Cape and the projects that they are working on. Some of the data was scrapped from the website of the City of Cape Town and some came from government departments. Eyal says looking for data from various sources to use in a single data story is ideal for journalists.

“There is a lot of data available. Look for data from all sorts of places,” he says.

Countries like Kenya have made it easy by creating its own open data site. In South Africa, the Promotion of Acccess to Information Act enables data enthusiasts and journalists to access information from state departments.

Scrapping data

It doesn’t end with finding the right sources of data. Quite often the data comes in a format that is not easy to extract and analyse.

No need for a headache: tutorials will show you how to scrap the data

There are also various free tools that allow journalists and other users to extract data. These include outwit hub, google refine and import.io. Using them requires knowledge. Code for South Africa is part of a network of African open data organisations. Other networks are in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya and they provide training to help journalists acquire such skills.

EJN also provides training and online resources that journalists can use. One such resource is the geojournalism handbook, which provides tutorials. Data journalism writer and trainer Paul Bradshaw also provides tutorials on his online blog.

Query the data 

Aldhous says querying the data is an important part of the journalistic process. Most journalists don’t have these kind of skills but will need to “befriend” a scientist who can help with the statistical analysis of the data, says Steve Connor, the science editor for The Independent.

Don’t take the data at face value

Querying would involve being aware of problems the data set has.

“What is missing from it? What errors does it have? Question everything. Check it out. If your mother says she loves you, you check it out,” Aldhous says.

Querying would also clear biases to ensure that that journalists “don’t debunk bad science by doing bad science,” says Deborah Cohen, the investigative editor at the BMJ.

Analysis and visualisation

Visualisation will help attract the reader to your story

Querying also involves analysis to see what trends are derived from it. Providing it in a tabular form or in an excel document can be quite daunting for the reader. There are data tools that are available that help journalists to visualise their data in a way that makes it palatable and easy to read. Such tools include Datawrapper, Geobatch, and Tableau.

Writing the story 

Be clear and concise

A data story isn’t just about the numbers. Brad Parks, the executive director of AidData, a good data story has to “break it down to something understandable.” It must be relevant and timely too, he says.

Aldhous says it must be accompanied by a compelling narrative that would be easy and enjoyable to ready.