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June 20, 2022 (Updated )

You wouldn’t think a pair of broken earbuds would lead to a 3,000 word data-led investigation. But when the Financial Times’ Alexandra Heal rediscovered one such pair of earbuds, gathering dust in their old charging case, that was exactly what happened.

Driven by “the under-discussed aspects of twenty-first-century consumerism” — namely the fact they couldn’t be recycled or repaired — her reporting is a compelling combination of personal storytelling, expert analysis, and comprehensive numerical data, all illustrated with vibrant CT scans of a variety of brands.

Numbers can sometimes scare people away, but they’re crucial to understanding our world. Especially as journalists, it’s vital to both feel comfortable with numbers and know how to make them accessible to the general public.

Data has a crucial role to play in all kinds of reporting. It’s not just financial charts, climate change temperature graphs, and COVID-19 case rates. Everything, even the most unexpected of stories, is becoming more data-driven and visual.

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Alexandra’s piece combined stunning visuals with data and on-the-ground reporting.

How Important Is Data Journalism?

“Data journalism is probably older than a lot of people think it is, but the pandemic has really brought it into focus as a frontline method for journalism,” says Alan Smith, Head of Visual and Data Journalism at the Financial Times.

Data journalists had been “evangelising in newsrooms” for many years previously. Now, their voices are being heard across the industry, in part “because it’s been almost impossible to report on COVID-19 without being able to interpret — and explain — all of the data”.

Aidan O’Donnell, a lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, is equally passionate about the value of data. According to him, journalists should care about data first and foremost, because data fluency is a vital tool for fact-checking.

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When politicians or business leaders make bold numerical claims, sceptical journalists with strong data skills are well-placed to hold them to account. But currently, for a combination of reasons, “journalists generally aren’t stopping them and saying that doesn’t make sense”. Data visualisation can take this even further, offering clear illustrations of any gaps between discourse and reality.

Another benefit of data fluency is the simple fact that there is a huge quantity of interesting details that you can uncover when you start looking through the numbers. As Aiden points out, a lot of great data journalism is based on “stuff that we simply didn’t know until someone sat down and counted it”, whether that’s who sponsors Premier League teams or how many people are struggling to get access to the dentist.

What About Data Visualisation?

By themselves though, numbers can often be quite opaque. Data visualisation is simply a way of contextualising figures, bringing a story to life, and grabbing readers’ attention.

Sam Joiner, Visual Stories Editor at the Financial Times, says: “Visual storytelling is a powerful way of teaching readers things that you can’t communicate with words alone. You give readers a real lightbulb moment when you show them the answer to something in a visual format.”

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“Visual storytelling is a powerful way of teaching readers things that you can’t communicate with words alone. You give readers a real lightbulb moment.”
Sam Joiner, Visual Stories Editor

Nowadays, says Sam, online media has to “compete with everything on the internet”, so you really need to be able to draw people in and communicate ideas efficiently. It’s a cliché, but “a picture really can be worth a thousand words”, so graphics can “break through to people aimlessly scrolling on social media”.

What’s more, readers really care about data visualisation. At the Financial Times, data-driven storytelling accompanied by innovative visual tools “often gets the best feedback”.

Reporting a data-driven or visual story is, in many ways, just like traditional journalism. Every story starts out with “a lot of interviews” and “a lot of reading”, says Visual Reporter Alexandra Heal.

There’s also a lot of discussion about “what will make the piece fun”. According to Alexandra, one of the best things about this kind of journalism is the opportunity to employ innovative methods, both when it comes to reporting and telling a story.

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What Makes A Good Data Journalism Story?

The best stories come about “when you start with a question rather than an answer,” says Alan. If you start with an open question and an open mind, you can surprise yourself along the way. “And if you’ve surprised yourself, you’ll probably surprise the reader.”

Ultimately, he says the best data journalism should aim “to break people’s perceptions”, rather than simply affirming a hunch. For one story, the Financial Times investigated patterns in the quantities of resources set to be allocated to different areas of the UK from the government’s Levelling Up Fund, finding bias in favour of Tory seats. “We had no sense of what the top line was in this story until we actually ran the analysis and looked at the data,” says Alan.

The Climate Game uses real data to challenge users to tackle problems themselves.

Starting out with data analysis can also offer a good framework for on-the-ground reporting, as shown by the Financial Times’ 2019 report into inequality in the UK. To begin, the team used data analysis to identify the areas “with the steepest social gradients between the haves and the have-nots”. Then, they sent reporters to these areas to examine the lived experiences behind these statistics.

There’s also huge room for creativity. Interactive charts are only the beginning. In April 2022, the Financial Times worked with scientists, modellers, and policy experts to create a new climate change game, in which players attempt to make the right choices to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change. (A/N: I’m proud to say that I succeeded in limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. but only on my third attempt.)

Sam paints a similar picture. “As a team, we have a lot of discussions about how we can bring stories to life, about what’s happening in the news agenda, and about how we might latch on to those key narratives and tell stories around them in exciting new ways.” This all requires the ability to multitask. “We’re always thinking about code and design as well as reporting”, says Joiner.

Alan is eager to avoid the common pitfall of seeing data visualisation as an afterthought. “Definitely the best journalism comes when you think about visuals and data as a part of the commissioning process.” Meanwhile, both Alexandra and Sam caution against the overzealous use of visual tools. “We’re not adorning stories with these visuals. They need to communicate something to the reader that you couldn’t just put in the paragraph”.

What Skills Do You Need As A Data Journalist?

There are a lot of different technical skills that can help you out, when it comes both to analysing data and bringing it to life. An eye for graphic design, the ability to code, an understanding of statistics, the list goes on… It can all seem pretty overwhelming, but Sam says this shouldn’t put people off.

“You don’t need to master everything,” he asserts. It’s enough just to develop skills in a couple of areas and be prepared to collaborate to bring your ideas to life.

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“Data journalism is a great way of getting a more inclusive and diverse team assembled in the newsroom, because everyone can come from different backgrounds and bring something different to this collaborative space.”
Alan Smith, Head of Visual and Data Journalism, Financial Times

“You don’t necessarily have to know how to code or to generate the data yourself, although it certainly helps, but you do have to be aware of the right questions to ask”. This means reading up on techniques and best practices for handling data, as well as engaging with innovative visualisation tools across the industry, in order to “build the visual vocabulary” to figure out what formats are most appropriate for your story.

Similarly, Alan notes: “No amount of technical talents undermine any of the skills we traditionally associate with journalism. It’s still incredibly important to know how to write well,  how to talk to people, and how to scrutinise the news agenda.” As for overcoming any gaps in technical skills, “this can be resolved through teamwork!” he exclaims. Indeed, when seeking new journalists to join his team at the Financial Times, Smith looks out for collaborative skills in particular, as well as a bit of creativity.

Practical Tips

Start with a question: Begin with an open question and an open mind. Follow the data to find the answer. Hopefully, you’ll surprise yourself along the way.

Think about visual tools upfront: Visuals and graphics shouldn’t be an afterthought. Make sure to think about them from the outset, as part of the pitch or commissioning process, so they guide your reporting.

Collaborate: Try as you might, you’ll struggle to master every single relevant skill — and that’s okay! Ask experts and colleagues for support whenever you can.

Think outside the box: Consider making your storytelling interactive — perhaps in the form of a game, or a knowledge test.

Keep it simple: Don’t over-complicate your charts and graphics. They should be instantly legible and comprehensible. Focus on the key takeaways. Ideally, try to figure out one central focal point you want to highlight.

“This kind of reporting is really only limited by your imagination. Being creative enough to think about different ways of telling a story is incredibly important, so we always look for a little bit of a creative spark that means that someone’s going to be able to tell stories in a different kind of way.”

Overall, Smith is optimistic about the future of this space. “Data journalism is a great way of getting a more inclusive and diverse team assembled in the newsroom, because everyone can come from different backgrounds and bring something different to this collaborative space. The thing that excites me more than anything else over the next few years is the sort of projects that we’ll be able to deliver with that recipe.”

He adds: “I’m telling everyone who’s prepared to listen that this is a great part of journalism to aim for.”

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Stephanie Stacey
Stephanie Stacey

Stephanie is a Journo Resources Fellow 2022, a modern languages student (and former maths dropout) from Cumbria. While at university, she has been extensively involved with student journalism and has also written freelance articles for outlets such as Hyperallergic and FGRLSCLUB.

Alongside reporting, she enjoys watercolour painting and making soup.