Report Launch: The Curious Journalist’s Guide to Data

By Efrat Nechushtai

On March 24, the Tow Center launched “The Curious Journalist’s Guide to Data” – a research project led by Tow Fellow Jonathan Stray. (The report is available to download and read at the Tow Center’s GitBook repository.) In this book, Stray examines the principles behind data journalism and, more broadly, the fundamental ideas behind the human tradition of counting things.

The launch event, held at Columbia Journalism School, featured a presentation of the report followed by a panel discussion with Meredith Broussard, Assistant Professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University; Mark Hansen, Director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation; and Scott Klein, Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica. A full audio recording of the discussion is available on SoundCloud.

The event started with a short presentation by Stray, who explained why journalists in particular will benefit from adding quantitative concepts to their toolkit: “Sometimes you look at a chart and you think you see the story, but do you really? There’s more than one story you can pull out of a dataset. In fact, there’s more than one story you can pull out of a single number. Which one do you report? That’s a point of journalistic ethics. The story that you can’t prove wrong is your best shot. If you want to prove that something didn’t happen by chance, calculate how unlikely it is.”

In the panel discussion that followed, Mark Hansen noted, “Every discipline on campus is seeing its core artifacts digitized and opened to some kind of data analytics, whether we’re talking about History, English, Architecture, Business, and so on. In journalism, as part of this larger process, we have tremendous possibilities to tell stories in dramatically new, engaging, and frankly beautiful ways, that have nothing to do with spreadsheets. We should look for data opportunities, and it doesn’t always have to mean going to the census – there are so many things we can bring in.”

“Data is socially constructed,” said Meredith Broussard. “One of the things I say to my students is that working with data is not the same as doing pure math. Data is about people counting things, so if you can understand people, you can understand data.”

When asked by the audience about the option of relying on expert statisticians, Scott Klein said, “We are starting to see more complicated models, but I would say, know how to calculate the odds. That’s a basic, basic skill that will tell you if something that happened is unusual. That will solve a lot of problems in your stories.”

Broussard added, “I recommend the buddy system – having a buddy that you can talk to about all the different kinds of topics that you walk into when you’re a journalist. Have a buddy who’s an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, a mathematician. When I get stuck on something as a journalist, or when I feel like I’m in it over my head, I call my buddy who’s a mathematician and we talk about it.”

Panel members were then asked how news teams can render complicated graphs and figures on mobile phones, where more people are likely to read the story. “My only advice is to care enough to do it,” said Klein. “It’s a long process of testing, and it’s worth doing. I think that there is no such thing as mobile content. Wherever it is I’m reading at that moment, I want to know the same things.”


Efrat Nechushtai is a current Ph.D. candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.