a, Off the Board, Opinion

Off the board: The false promise of data journalism

Journalism, at its heart, is about telling a story. Over the years, journalists have developed different tools to tell these stories.Some, like famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, prefer elaborate and sometimes outlandish prose, while others, such as novelist Hunter S. Thompson, pioneered the field of ‘gonzo journalism’ that aims to discard objectivity.

‘Big data’ has emerged as a buzzword in all walks of professional life. It’s not a surprise that ‘data journalism,’ the use of statistics to explain news stories, is starting to truly come into its own—a glance at both terms on Google Trends confirms their parallel rise. Legacy media outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian have both embraced data journalism as a tool to enhance the online experience to varying degrees of success. Stand-alone publications, such as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight—created after Silver’s success at predicting the 2012 election for The New York Times— have fallen short in the face of lofty expectations.

FiveThirtyEight offered immense promise as a potential news source at the time of its launch as an aggregation of economics, politics, life, science, and sports. Unlike other websites that were attempting to ‘disrupt’ the journalism space, it had the backing of an established media heavyweight, ESPN. However, seven months on from its conception, its most noteworthy project has been the burrito bracket—a 67,000-restaurant quest to find the U.S.’s best burrito. Although the piece was interesting and mouth-watering, it was hardly the explanatory journalism on serious issues that it was touted to be.

Much has been made of the need for immediate results in an ever shortening news cycle. The strength of data journalism lies in its ability to dissect information and explain current events and trends, not in reporting the news as it happens. Additionally, many articles on FiveThirtyEight often end without a clear and succinct conclusion; an idea is explored and dissected but there are still questions that remain—a shortcoming when using a purportedly analytical method to explain the news. Data journalism is also plagued by a catch-22: its complexity. If statistical analysis is too simplified, it loses what made it attractive in the first place—an explanation of current events rooted in statistical evidence.

Data has become a prominent fixture in sports journalism—advanced analytics is commonplace in the discussion of basketball and baseball and is slowly making an appearance in soccer, football, and hockey. Its value in political and economic journalism is well documented as well—FiveThirtyEight famously predicted the outcome of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Even so, data journalism in a vacuum doesn’t necessarily deliver better results than ‘traditional’ journalism; it’s the blend of the data with the ability to contextualize it that adds value.

The data journalism movement isn’t here yet, nor will it ever truly be—data journalism shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for traditional journalism, but rather as a supplement. A mistake I had initially made was expecting it to be 21st century journalism’s silver bullet. Although the moment isn’t here, Vox, The Upshot, and FiveThirtyEight offer readers a glimpse of what the future of journalism will look like. Site layouts are eye-catching, clean, and sophisticated, contributing to reader engagement. In the same vein, a heavy emphasis has been placed on using visual charts, infographics, and other interactive elements to create a more engaging online experience. However, as it develops, the best practices of ‘data journalism’ may become a major part of mainstream journalism as a whole, helping readers to better contextualize news events.

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