WASHINGTON – Rethinking the approach to a story can be challenging even for the most weathered of journalists. Many of us know our medium and have not ventured too far beyond it when it comes to storytelling. Data visualizations are becoming a more popular way for journalists to do their jobs, either in finding a story in the numbers or as a supplement to a larger investigation.
Since some of us are just venturing into the world of data vis, it may seem like a relatively new medium. But experts like Joshua Hatch have made a career out of specializing in data-driven reporting. Hatch is the senior editor of data and interactives at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He’s an Online News Association board member and adjunct professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C.
After working with data for years, Hatch understands its storytelling value. We discussed the best use of data is when it answers a question.
“You’re getting data you can then act on. So the same is true with … knowing the point spread of a game, or it might be what stock is tanking. So, I think a lot of times data is really a step towards answering questions, solving a problem, that sort of thing,” Hatch said.
Hatch was kind enough to write us a how-to guide to aquainting yourself with the basics of data visualizations. For those of us who aren’t looking to become experts, he says it’s still important to understand the capabilities for story telling with data — not only to increase your knowledge base, but to better understand the challenges and lingo of the data experts in your newsroom.
“Increasingly, you’re finding journalists are in these collaberative multi-diciplinary groups, teams, newsrooms and someone is talking about SQL Queries. If one person is talking about a SQL and you think they’re talking about the second Star Wars film, you have a problem. If at least you know they’re talking about a data base, you can get somewhere,” Hatch said.
Below Hatch suggests some programs and sites to get started in data viz:
“You don’t have to be a programmer to get started with data visualization. There are many easy and free online tools beginners can use right away. Socrata is one of my favorites. This tool makes it drop-dead simple to make tables, charts, graphs and even some maps. The results are attractive, interactive, and flexible enough for nearly any site. For more fine-grain control, step up to Google Fusion tables. With Fusion Tables, you can handle bigger data sets, join tables and start to get into APIs.
|Read a transpcript of our interview with Josh Hatch|
While Fusion Tables can also handle mapping, check out these other mapping tools, too: GeoCommons, CartoDB and MapBox. Each has pros and cons, but all are worth getting to know. These are just a few of the many tools that are out there.”
As an adjunct professor, Hatch has an interesting perspective on the changing face of journalism education. Someone interested in learning a new medium no longer has to show up to class to become an expert. Online classes and tutorials are changing the game.
“The barrier of entry is so low now,” Hatch said. Not to take anything away from the traditional classroom setting, he agrees there will always be a place for that type of learning environment in education. But there is also no good reason why someone cannot have a better understanding of the journalism industry’s changing technologies, even if they’re not looking to change their expertise.
He offers advice to up-and-coming journalists that it’s important to have core competencies like a basic understanding of ethics, communications law, writing and grammar to communicate effectively as a journalist. But beyond knowing the tenets of the profession, is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each medium.
“It’s useful to have a fairly broad, and it doesn’t have to be very deep, but fairly broad understanding of the different elements, different media types, when do you they work and why,” Hatch said.
He offers the exmple of a playful, yet grabbing story out of The New Yorker about a man who is an expert pickpocket. While it was a great article, Hatch argues it would have been better with a video. He says he would have loved to see how the man actually rips someone off. There’s an invaluable element video provides to that story which text alone, even when stretched to it’s descriptive limits, cannot achieve. The same goes for any story that plays to the strengths of one medium over another.
Luckily, The New Yorker had the same vision for the story and published this video to accompany it. Hatch must have missed it. I’ll give him a hard time about that later. But for now, it still serves as a great example of how a print reporter got an interesting assignment and told a story well. But it could have been better in another medium. We agreed after a long conversation in the podcast that rethinking your approach to a story can be a challenging and valuable exercise.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think it’s great. Jim Roberts is a new board member of ONA himself talks about it being the golden age of journalism. I think he’s exactly right. It’s a terrible time in the journalism industry, in the business. But on the journalism side, I think it’s a terrific time. I think there’s more vectors, avenues and opportunities to reach audiences. I think there’s better ways to tell stories. I think there’s a greater thirst for accurate non-biased information. I think its a phenomnial time to be a journalist.”