This post originally appeared on The Future of News.
One of the most important attributes of data driven journalism is that it scales, and the primary goal of my OpenRural, Open N.C. and data dashboard projects has been to democratize data so that we start seeing the same types of reporting and presentation in small community papers that we see in the big national news sites. So when I saw Thursday’s New York Times graphic on the race gap in America’s police departments, I immediately thought that something similar could be done pretty quickly that would look at North Carolina towns.
Being a words guy rather than a picture guy, I used data visualization software Tableau to put together a prototype of something similar to what The Times had done. It is absolutely nowhere near as good as what they did, but I copied their concept, color scheme and fonts. And about two hours later I had something that told the same story.
The graphic alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Tippett pointed out when I showed her the chart that most of the Latinos in Siler City aren’t even eligible to join the city’s police force — 40% are not adults, and 80% of adult Hispanics there are not citizens.
And many of these police forces are very small, which makes it easy for them to end up with huge percentage disparities in the racial breakdowns of their police and residents. Tiny Biscoe, for example, only has nine police officers. Wagram has two police officers — half of which are white and half of which are “other.”
The other potential problem with the data is that it’s seven years old. But so is the data used by The Times.
This is just an example of how we might continue to democratize data. This graphic could be emailed to an editor of each news outlet in North Carolina, along with a list of suggested questions that local reporters could ask to quickly make the data more relevant.
Suggested Questions to Localize This Data Driven Story
- “This data is seven years old. Does it still look accurate to you? Can you provide me with some more recent data of the racial and ethnic breakdown of the police department?”
- “Why do you think your department has a higher percentage of white officers than the residents?”
- “How does the racial disparity between the police department and local residents effect the way your department works?”
- “Walk me through the hiring process for new officers. How does a candidate’s race factor in to hiring decisions, if at all?”
- “How do you publicize vacancies in the department? Do you do anything to recruit minority applicants?”
- “What percentage of your officers live in the city? How important is it that officers come from within the city? Why?”
- Also, seek opinions of others — both insiders such as city council members and community leaders as well as people on the street. Consider using social media such as Facebook or Twitter to ask people what they think about the data and these questions. This is the start of a conversation, not the end. Be sure to get a diversity of perspectives — age, gender, geography and certainly race and ethnicity.
The Challenge: News Deserts
But even if we acquire, clean and produce data along with some simple story guides, data driven journalism may still not find its way into smaller newspapers if nobody is there to receive our help. At many papers, this would still be seen as enterprise reporting. As an editor with a staff you can count on one hand, do you send a reporter out prospecting for answers to these somewhat uncomfortable questions? Or do you have them write up the day’s arrests? Or preview this weekend’s chamber of commerce golf tournament?
North Carolina also has broad news deserts — whole counties that have no reporters shining light in dark places, holding powerful people accountable and explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Siler City, for example, is in a county of 65,000 people with a single newspaper that reaches only 12 percent of them. The News & Observer — provides scant coverage of the county.
What other story templates would you like to see? What would make them easier to use?
Ryan Thornburg researches and teaches online news writing, editing, producing and reporting as an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has helped news organizations on four continents develop digital editorial products and use new media to hold powerful people accountable, shine light in dark places and explain a complex world. Previously, Thornburg was managing editor of USNews.com, managing editor for Congressional Quarterly’s website and national/international editor for washingtonpost.com. He has a master’s degree from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and a bachelor’s from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.