Stories in Data Journalism

Narrative is essential for context and meaning. That’s the point I’m about to try and make – let’s see how it goes.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in one of my Masters level media papers (not this one, don’t worry) where the lecturer was attempting to explain his belief that because Julien Assange created Wikileaks and enabled huge data dumps of information that he was now one of the world’s most influential journalists. The thirty or so students in the class all seemed to unanimously agree – except for me. Something didn’t feel right about the statement. Why would providing copious amounts of information to the public, void of any sort of contextual political or social narrative to explain the information, suddenly entitle someone to be called a journalist? I wouldn’t throw flour and eggs and cocoa powder at your face, tell you I made you a cake, and then proclaim myself one of the world’s most influential chefs while you sit there covered in ingredients wondering what the hell just happened and who the guy throwing food about the place was.

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Then I watched a TED talk by Ben Wellington about data and stories, and immediately felt a probably overinflated sense of affirmation in my stance. In this talk, he discussed how integral it is for a journalist to attach narrative and story to data sets, otherwise people won’t care. Summarised into four short points on how to attach narrative:

1) Connect with people,

2) Try to convey one idea,

3) Keep it simple,

4) Stick to what you know best.

Without applying such an approach, data is just numbers – and not THAT many people like math.

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