Data Journalism Data with a Story to Tell

Data journalism is a new trend
Data journalism is a new trend | Photo (detail): © ldprod - Fotolia.com

Data are the raw materials of our modern, digital times. In the field of journalism the masses of data have brought about new modes of researching and publishing formats. In Germany, too, data journalism is on a roll.

Never before have data been gathered, recorded and stored in data banks in such quantity and variety. For the realm of journalism these mountains of data are a real treasure trove, because they contain information and stories that are just waiting to be brought to light – they just have to be aggregated, classified and evaluated.

This trend goes by the name of data journalism, machine-readable data records are analysed by software in order to derive a coherently informative added value from the huge, complex amounts of data. This ist then to be presented and visualised in a way that people can understand. The ideal scenario would be data journalism providing users with the additional possibility of forming their own ideas and impressions by conducting interactive research and publishing the raw data. Data journalism breaks through the linear approach of traditional forms of publishing by making use of the typical possibilities of the Internet: hypertextuality, multimediality and interactivity.

The birth of data journalism

It was the online editors at the British daily, The Guardian, who got the ball rolling back in 2010, when they were working on processing thousands of secret documents about the war in Afghanistan they had obtained from the Wikileaks platform. They were able to develop multimedia-augmented reports and interactive graphics from over 90,000 sets of data. In addition the newspaper also set up a data bank on the Internet which users could access for their research. The Guardian described this approach later as inevitable – conventional methods such as textualisation or the tabular form were not really suited to categorising and determining the information content of the huge amounts of complex data. Data journalism, on the other hand, offered the expedient possibility of conducting research and publishing the material.

German data journalism projects

With its reader-friendly processing of digital information The Guardian became a trailblazer of data journalism. It was then not long before all kinds of data-journalistic formats started to get off the ground in Germany. One of the best known was the an application called “Verräterisches Handy” (The Reveal-All Mobile Phone) produced by the Zeit Online newspaper in the year 2011. Malte Spitz, a politician from Germany’s Green Party, placed all his retained data from August 2009 to February 2010 at the disposal of the project. Visualised on an animated card, they show where Spitz was at any given time. In order to make it clear just how accurately and detailed the life of a human being can be depicted, Zeit Online hooked up these geo–data with any information they could find freely about Spitz on the Internet, for example, via tweets or blog entries. The issue of using data retention for surveillance purposes is further reinforced by articles. Users can download the data, monitor the journey through Spitz’s life at the speed of their choice, as well as focus on any one particular point in time. The taz daily newspaper, on the other hand, introduced a format called “Parteispenden-Watch” (Party Donations Watch) which since 2009 has been using an interactive card to show what donations go to which parties. Only when it has been graphically enhanced and accompanying texts have been added, however, do the actual donation activities become transparent and comprehensible. The Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, for example, decided on a data-journalistic approach to the refugee issue – graphics make it clear where the refugees came from in the period from January to August 2015 and in which German federal states they were housed.

Running into headwind in Germany

Although data journalism is on a growth trend in Germany, the progress being made is actually quite slow. German media have to contend with a whole range of obstacles. For example, the strict data protection laws in Germany sometimes make it difficult for journalists to get hold of sets of data. Then there is the Open Data Movement that is striving to make state-financed data both freely available and useable and could provide a data basis for many data-journalistic projects, but the Movement is having a difficult time gaining a foothold in German administrations. The reason being that, up to now, the authorities have been able to publish data on a voluntary basis and they are in fact quite hesitant about the whole thing. On top of that, there is also the fact that continental European copyright law prohibits, for example, the free use of cards for visualisation purposes.

Data journalism needs journalists, too

Data journalists work along the same ethical and workmanship principles as classical journalists. As, however, a data journalist relies on different material sources and different tools, his role is also different. If in the past journalists saw themselves as guardians of the holiest of holies – sources, they now have to be much more open if they are involved in data-journalistic projects. The reason being that data journalism is based on the principles of a free and open net culture. This also embraces the idea that, by sharing the data with users, new information will flow back into the editorial offices and provide a deeper understanding of the subject. Furthermore journalists need to have the technical skills to exploit the possibilities of the Internet and to implement the contributions in the best possible way. Research in future is very often going to focus on “scraping”, i.e. combing through websites and gathering raw data.

All of this, however, does not mean that journalists are going to turn into “data miners”, statisticians and programmers. And it certainly won’t be the case that journalism will have to get along without any journalists, as programs are able to automatically query data banks, process data and then play them back. As the data do not speak for themselves, however, there is still a need for the classical journalistic framework – only when data sources are clarified, coherences pointed out and results analysed can an added information value be realised from all the masses of data.