Getting started in data journalism

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Producing data-driven journalism has become essential in the current industry.

Data: an often all-encompassing and confusing term for the millions of numbers and other pieces of information collected about individuals, everyone and everything.

There are so many new statistics and data sets now available that it is said that we are living in the Era of Big Data. While the thought of diving into a big set of numbers can trigger our math anxiety, there are stories in those numbers, important stories that need to be told.

So how do we get in there and find the fresh stories, and the hard facts that give our other stories solid spines?

The good news is that you don’t have to start out being an expert. Data journalist, author and scholar Paul Bradshaw says you can start small, just finding enough data to make charts, infographics, timelines and other pretty pictures with the huge range of online tools that are out there.  

But where are the good places to get fresh data?

Places to watch

At the risk of being considered almost too obvious, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has entire data sets available for varying industries, key economic indicators, labour, health population, the environment and many more. 

Beyond just these basics though, searching through the Data by Region function reveals up-to-date data about particular regions involved in your stories or ideas. The data available by region also includes the last five years worth of data, allowing for easy comparison or to see the effects of a particular policy or problem in a specific area over time.

Similarly, Stats NZ provides the bulk of New Zealand’s official statistical data. With the majority of data arranged by topic and region, the tools page provides a stream of recently updated tools and statistics. Much like the ABS, these provide easy starters for stories.

Working in the same realm of obvious agencies, CSIRO data has regularly updated data sets on a wide variety of topics that can be transformed into news stories. Using the ‘search by area’ function, adding your selected area and entering a keyword. For example, wildlife, can pull up all data sets on wildlife in that specific area over many years. This could help form the basis for stories about habitat loss, the environment, or a specific species which may be making the news for a variety of reasons.

For business journalism, the Reserve Bank of Australia releases regular chart packs that provide key economic indicators. Analyses of growth in different sectors are great predictors of future scenarios and can be catalysts for further investigation into industries.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provides constant releases regarding the health and wellbeing of Australians. Its data extends further than just diseases and physical or mental activity, also recording child protection and justice statistics. It provides detailed analysis on many different topics, including suicide and self-harm rates, analysis of cancer diagnoses and less complex issues, like GP visits. 

The Australian Medical Journal publishes peer-reviewed research which, although less numerical, can complement many of the statistical studies by the AIHW. 

The Federal Department of Health also has a large selection of resources available with data on immunisation, health insurance, substance abuse, aged care and more. These, although detailed, indicate trends that can be used to inform discussion on the societal issues which may cause them. 

In regards to stories concerning welfare, the Australian Government has released Social Security, Health and Related information data sets indicating where to access key information. 

For stories focused on substance abuse, or for socioeconomic stories concerning substance abuse, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre Resources regularly publishes new data on trends and trials nationwide.

How to use data

Data-driven journalism has ramped up in recent years, particularly during 2020, where elections and pandemics became central to any kind of news.

Data-driven journalism aims to explain a story involving complex statistics in a visually or narratively appealing manner. Beyond just graphs and charts, data journalism stories describe the people behind the behaviour. 

This article about a Belgian designers re-interpretation of the US electoral map based on population, as opposed to landmass, demonstrates how data can be reimagined and presented as a news story even years after the fact.

Further, data-centric stories can form the basis of discussions on interpretations of data. Finding the ‘Why’ behind a certain demographic’s prevalence of blue eyes, or who uses public transport regularly, or where services are accessed, prompt the beginnings of stories and discussions.

 

Sources of tips on data journalism

DataJournalism.com has a free handbook available here, which includes case studies, a brilliant (and more detailed) explanation of what data journalism actually is. 

Similarly, the American Press Institute has a free online chapter on how data can create and inform journalistic practice. It also showcases key case studies, including stories that make connections between riots in the UK and poverty, to explain how the framing of data can inform stories. 

The Google News Initiative has a 115 minute free online course on Data Journalism.

Finally, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has an informational piece concerning creating stories about the people or places behind data.

In addition to that a growing number of Australian universities are adding units and courses in data journalism, so talk to your lecturers or search for courses near you.