Data journalism goes undercover

This essay was originally published by the Nieman Lab, as part of their annual predictions on journalism series.

It’s my hope more than my prediction that 2019 will be the year in which data journalism goes undercover. All journalists should become data literate and more journalists should learn basic data skills. And having these basic data skills should be as exciting as having what it takes to send an e-mail or make a phone call. Only then data journalists will lose their unicorn status, which allows the field of data journalism to simply disappear in the field of journalism.

Modest journalism

Despite all the beautiful data productions I’ve seen throughout the year, it’s my hope that data productions will eventually go undercover too. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel describe in The Elements of Journalism (excerpt by the American Press Institute) the first task of the news journalist is “to verify what information is reliable and then order it so people can grasp it efficiently”. Thinking of all the beautiful but sometimes complex visual data journalism production I’ve seen, I dare to ask if all these forms of storytelling are ‘efficiently to grasp’. Even though I’m a fan of high-end visuals, technological innovation and new forms of storytelling; I feel that visually modest journalism can be just as efficient, if not more.

About the story

Besides, isn’t the best data journalism invisible? Data-driven stories should center around the story, not around the data, analysis or technology that keeps the story afloat. When reading, listening or watching such productions, a possible data visualisation here and there excepted, the public should not be actively thinking about data. If they do, they’re not thinking about the story. Why not? Isn’t the story efficient to grasp? Since journalism creates the map for citizens to navigate society with, we should make sure our maps are readable for all and read by many.

Off course this might be a lot to ask for. But in a world filled with fake news and alternative facts, we can only welcome more fact-based, data-driven journalism. And I think common data knowledge within and outside of journalism, would be a good start.

Winny de Jong is data journalist at the Dutch national broadcast NOS.