Weekly Reading Insights-Week 11

DATA. Damn.

That word’s meaning has truly evolved for me, in particular, from the first time I can remember hearing it in an educational setting. Way back in 1984, I learned a bit about ‘data’ while in Mrs. Ruth Caudell’s “Data Processing” class at Gilmer High School. Personal computers were new then, and my peers and I were stoked about taking a computer class (which then used DOS as operating system..lol). Primarily, what “data” meant to that group of high school students was focused on what a computer could do with it. Thus, it was more about the new technology than the value of the data themselves.

Fast-forward many years through and beyond my years in the journalism business, and we arrive in 2014. Now “data” is a significantly more operative and useful concept for the news business.  Indeed, gathering and interpreting data has always been integral to the news function. But now, there is so much more data available at a reporter’s fingertips. And the responsibility to be able to wrangle it and interpret it is much more intense.

Data-driven journalism (DDJ) is fairly new terminology for the news business, coined around 2009 to classify reporting that takes on the task of getting involved in the hordes of data now available online to extrapolate and synthesize information about trends and statistics. According to so-called “information architects” such as Mirko Lorenz and Paul Bradshaw, this new journalism task specifically requires some extent of computer capability.  Bradshaw’s take on the phenomenon of DDJ is summed up nicely in  this quote: “data must be found, which may require specialized skills like MySQL or Python, then interrogated, for which understanding of jargon and statistics is necessary, and finally visualized and mashed with the aid of open source tools.” Therefore, this new aspect of reporting has opened up new jobs in the field–and also new implications.

Amy Schmitz Weiss detailed some of these implications in this week’s reading from her blog.  Not only does DDJ require new technological skills not typically expected of reporters before, it requires new capability at insight. Further, because many citizen journalists and lay information mongers are adept at creating their own visual interpretation of data, reporters in this field of the business have to be savvy with this skill as well.  Data mining and sensor-sourced capabilities cause some concern about the waning existence of private data. And for the DDJ reporter, the main key is being able to interpret and synthesize the myriad information that is available and important to manage for contemporary news stories.  Weiss pointed out the applicability of the trend, such as with the Cicada Tracker technology and mapping capabilities.  But the overarching sensitivity here, as pointed out by Weiss, is the key capability of reporters to be able to understand and analyze statistical representations of data to make sense of them for the general public’s consumption.

Obviously, the role and existence of DDJ is eye-opening for me as an old-school journalist.  But the most enlightening part of this discovery for me was data reporter Grant Smith‘s presentation of a Google map he created for a story in the Commerical Appeal regarding an alleged serial rapist.  Smith showed the class how he laid out a map of the alleged perpetrator’s reported crimes, and it became obvious how using data to simply create a map can shed light on a story such as this like never before. For me, the mere visual representation of the alleged crimes on a map shed light on the accused rapist’s activity and inclinations.

Indeed, journalism not only acts differently than it once did, it looks different.  Our assignment to create a Google map of our own for this week’s assignment was both fun and educational for my first attempt in doing so.  It’s abundantly obvious to me now how data reporting and mapping has became a crucial part of journalism’s present, and how it can only grow as a field to become an integral part of journalism’s future.

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