Understanding the Past, Present and Future of Data Journalism

    by Damian Radcliffe
    February 25, 2016
    Photo by r2hox and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Data Journalism may be in vogue at the moment, but the practice has a longer history than many people realize.

    As the BBC’s Bella Hurrell and John Walton remind us in their contribution to a new book I co-edited, “Data Journalism: Inside the global future,” many of the principles of present-day data journalism can be traced back to more than 150 years ago.

    "Every newsroom needs people like me. But a newsroom filled with people like me couldn't function.” -Steve Doig

    Victorian origins

    The British nurse Florence Nightingale, for example, used a series of powerful visualizations during the Crimean War to successfully highlight how disease – rather than battle – was the biggest threat to the British Army.


    Looking at these now, what’s particularly striking is how contemporary their design still looks.

    “Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East" by Florence Nightingale. Image source: Wikipedia.

    “Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East” by Florence Nightingale.
    Image source: Wikipedia.

    By the same token, the map produced in 1854 by the Victorian physician John Snow – which plotted cholera cases in central London to successfully determine the source of this outbreak – is a clear forerunner of many modern day equivalents produced with Google Maps.


    And it’s not just the design principles of these earlier efforts that remain remarkably timeless. Some of the issues explored by journalists from this period are also incredibly evergreen.

    One good example of this is Horace Greeley’s 1848 examination of travel expenses by US Senators and Congressmen. His findings, which were published in The New York Tribune, concluded that a considerable number of elected officials (including a young Abraham Lincoln) were recipients of “excess” expenses.

    It’s a classic piece of traditional watchdog reporting that will resonate with modern day voters in countries as far afield as the UK, Australia and Canada, where recent scandals around political expenses have enjoyed considerable media coverage.

    Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun.


    What clearly has changed since the Victorian era, is the volume of data that journalists now have access to. Although there’s clearly some sense of déjà vu, the plethora of tools available to scrape, analyze and visualize data is unprecedented, as is the breadth and depth of data that we can harness through Freedom of Information Act requests or portals like Open Corporates.

    Conceivably we are living at the start of a golden age in data-driven reporting.

    The Open Corporates database alone provides access to details of over 93 million companies, with new entries being added all the time. This perfect storm of easy-to-use tools — and rich datasets — increasingly provides new opportunities for journalists around the world to exercise their fourth estate duties.

    Vanguards of this new movement include established publications like the Guardian and the Financial Times, as well as nascent digital outlets such as Vox or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

    But as Google’s Simon Rogers suggests, they’re not the only potential players in this space.

    “Data journalism is a great leveler,” he argues, not least because “many media groups are starting with as much prior knowledge and expertise as someone hacking away from their bedroom.”

    Common concerns: global lessons

    Photo by Cory M. Grenier on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Cory M. Grenier on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    Rogers’ enthusiasm will give confidence to many data journalists around the world. A further cause for optimism – and arguably my biggest takeaway from co-editing this new book – was to see many of the shared values and challenges that our thirty global contributors depicted.

    It was both comforting – and insightful – to find that data journalists around the world are often fighting many of the same battles. Hopefully readers will be able to draw inspiration from this shared experience and some of the solutions that are offered. This includes great case studies that could be reimagined by newsrooms around the world, alongside recommendations on implementing data journalism in both media companies and J-schools.

    From an editorial perspective, I loved how Jan Goodey, a journalism lecturer at Kingston University in west London, worked with his class to demonstrate potential conflicts of interest at the heart of UK local government. Their efforts – which included submitting, tracking and analyzing 99 separate FOI requests – revealed how public bodies are often investing pension funds into fracking companies, whilst also arbitrating planning proposals submitted by these very same businesses. This experience will not be unique to the UK, and as fracking grows as a global industry, I’d love to see others follow their template.

    Similarly, Matteo Moretti and his team used data journalism to create an award-winning series, the “People’s Republic of Bolzano,” which is also highly replicable. Their research exposed – and explained – the difference between perceptions of Chinese immigration and the reality in this North Italian city. Given the universality of concerns around migrant communities, it’s a model that merits duplication.

    Moving forward

    Data journalism is clearly becoming more deeply rooted in a wide range of news organizations, and its scope is only likely to grow. As a result, both journalists and readers will need to become more data literat, as we see data-driven journalism permeate every content vertical.

    For newsrooms, J-schools and journalism funders, this may mean that new approaches will need to be developed and deployed. Some potential remedies are explored in the book.

    Internews’ Eva Constantaras makes a compelling case for a more sustainable approach to data journalism training in developing countries. The boot camp model, she feels, may no longer be fit for purpose.

    Meanwhile, Steve Doig at Arizona State University also challenges conventional wisdom by questioning whether aspiring data journalists really need to have coding skills.

    “Journalism students need to know that such tools exist and that the ability to use them is valuable,” he says. “But I believe that the argument that all journalists need to be coders is utopian at best and arguably unfair to the majority of students who want to develop other kinds of story-telling skills. Every newsroom needs people like me. But a newsroom filled with people like me couldn’t function.”

    My own hope is that as data journalism becomes increasingly integrated into journalist’s workflows, so the term “data journalism” will disappear with it. Data is just a tool to enable journalists to do the job that they have always done. And although it opens up possibilities to tell stories in new and innovative ways, it should not be an outlier.

    The best way to change that perception is to stop talking about data journalism. It’s just journalism. Pure and simple. That’s a concept Florence Nightingale, John Snow and Horace Greely would no doubt understand. Hopefully their twenty-first century equivalents will too.

    Damian Radcliffe (@damianradcliffe) is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in the University of Oregon. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies and a regular contributor to media outlets such as the BBC College of Journalism, TheMediaBriefing and ZDNet.

    Tagged: Bella Hurrell data journalism Data Journalism: Inside the global future Eva Constantaras John Walton Steve Doig

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