Data Driven Journalism

by Alexandra McDonald

“Data-driven journalism is the future. Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times. But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web.

This quote is taken from the Data Journalism Handbook, an online, open-source publication completely indispensible as an introductory resource to this fascinating and relatively new field of reporting and inquiry.

Using numerical analysis to transform the abstract into the accessible, is an emerging alternative to the rise of citizen journalism and opinion driven blogs that have flooded the internet-scape in a tsunami of witty but perhaps less informative prose. Combining statistical interpretation with a more traditional structure of news reporting, this new form of Journalism uses a quantitative scientific framework with the defining characteristic of creating legitimacy. Journalism and reporting is becoming increasingly assaulted and diffused. To create legitimacy and to restore coherence is imperative to improve public perception of a field of work that is vital to the function of society.

Nielsen 2012 data trends suggests not only that the online community in Australia is growing exponentially and downloading has hit an all time high, but interestingly that that more devices an individual owns and uses indicates a strong correlation to a reliance on social media for a significant portion of their news coverage. Check out my infographic.

These stats suggest that as more technology becomes integrated into societal structures, the more likely it will be that social media is going to become a predominant platform by which audiences access their news. A case in point to perhaps reiterate the impending new mediated world emerging, is Fairfax’s recent downsize from broadsheet to tabloid of both The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and the 1900 jobs Fairfax recently culled. A more abstract notion of what Journalism actually is, is emerging with more platforms to access news becoming available, and this audience migration is having a huge effect on News Corporations. A world where everyone gets their news through twitter links instead of a good old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper is a jarring prospect for some, especially for those partial to the simplified ‘Atari’ days, but it is happening. And it is a good thing. Its exciting, innovative, transformative.

Check out Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog under the umbrella of the New York Times, to read some amazing statistical interpretation that has deservedly garnered him notoriety around the world for his political acumen. Ridiculously accurate predictions of American political races abound. During the 2008 Presidential election, Nate Silver used a mathematical model to predict the winner of 49 of the 50 states in America. The one state he got wrong had a 0.1% margin between Obama and McCain. In 2012 he accurately predicted with 100% accuracy the outcome of every one of the 50 states, wether the majority went to Obama or Romney. His self-described political calculus is fascinating and clearly very successful.

In our own back yard we have Possum Comitatus on Pollytics through Crikey.  Using polling data, Possum distils and interprets Australian politics into enjoyably snarky and certainly elucidating graph and table filled articles. Especially intriguing is the recent article ‘What Australians Believe’. Accompanied as ever in a sharp, witty and almost sardonic delivery, the data interpretation is clever as well as hilarious and highlights many logical fallacies the general populous hold about Australian government and policy.

Another great and successful example of data driven Journalism that jumps to mind is the Datablog team and the eponymous Simon Rogers, published through UK paper The Guardian. Awash with interesting and informative data interpretation of a myriad of subjects and accompanied by witty and coherent prose, Datablog presents easy to fathom data and interesting articles that really are the pinnacle of what this style of reporting is like when done very well. You can download the data sets for yourself to take a look, the layout of the page is coherent, user friendly and almost always packed with visually appealing detailed infographics. Not only this, but the topics themselves are fascinating. The ‘Iraq After the Invasion: A Decade Visualised’ graphic is incredibly detailed yet easy to navigate, has distilled massive amounts of data into an interactive infograph that is both accessible and spectacular.

Many examples of great data journalism abound, and it is at our fingertips. If recent stats on computer usage are anything to go by, for a significant portion of time, technology is quite literally right in front of us. As of 2012, the Global online population was 2,095,006,005. The world is changing at an exponential rate and adaptation is key. The news media and Journalism as a profession is in transition. Audiences’ expectations are changing. Industry pressures are shifting. Economic and technological influences are bending the perception of the news media into never before seen forms. It is exciting. Liberating. It all has the potential to be better than ever before, more engaging, more interesting, and in this interconnected world the reach is all but endless.


About Alexandra McDonald

Online Portfolio of Alexandra McDonald. Current Postgraduate Journalism student. Writing about the news media and politic seems to be my emerging forte but I love writing and researching pretty much anything and everything! Catch me on
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