Data journalist Samantha Sunne was first introduced to data reporting while studying at the University of Missouri.
“It seemed the data class really drilled down to finding things that were happening and finding trends that way, as opposed to finding trends from word-of-mouth or just sort of theories and then looking for evidence to back up a theory,” she says.
But the thought of incorporating data might sound intimidating to those unfamiliar with tapping into data sets or doing reporting utilizing data as a tool. To help demystify this practice, Sunne, along with Mike Reilley, authored a book called Data + Journalism: A Story-Driven Approach to Learning Data Reporting.
“It’s a very hand-on, easy-to-use introduction to data journalism,” Sunne says. “We wrote it with professional journalists in mind as well as students. There are a lot of professional journalists out there who are very practiced at the art of journalism itself but may not know how to use a spreadsheet, or they may have heard of data, heard their friends talking about how cool it is but may not have used it themselves. This book walks you through how to find data, how to use it, how to make sure it’s accurate and also, really importantly, how to maximize it for storytelling in a journalistic way.”
Data reporting doesn’t take the humanity out of an article, Sunne says. It’s important to still incorporate quotes and anecdotes to make an article interesting and readable and to think of data as a component that can enhance reporting.
It can also be easier than expected to incorporate data into reporting.
“There are a lot of tools out there that can be simple to plug in,” Sunne said. “If you want to start working with spreadsheets, they’re often much more easy to work with than you might think. The upside to doing so is it makes your reporting so much more powerful, it can make it much more efficient and you can find new stories more easily. You can test your evidence more easily. It can also help you find a new edge to your reporting or add to your job or your beat that you might not have been doing earlier.”
While in college, Sunne came across a data set that showed a place known for hosting petting zoos had a bad record for animal welfare.
“It hadn’t been reported at all. (The place) had shown up in the local newspaper and in local media but mostly as cute profile stories or stories about a petting zoo event they did,” she says. “Those are worthwhile stories, we should always cover fun events for the community. But it was striking to me that no one had covered that this exact facility, that was hosting petting zoos and things, was one of the worst offenders in the state for animal welfare. The story came from data. No one had discovered that story because no one knew that this data set existed.”
Investigative reporter Samantha Sunne, who co-authored with Mike Reilley “Data Plus Journalism: A Story-Driven Approach to Learning Data Reporting,” shares tips on how journalists can use data to add more depth and context to their reporting.