When the story IS the interaction with the public
Here at the Lede Program we’ve been getting lots of different perspectives on what data journalism is and what it could be. As usual I will oversimplify for the sake of clarity, and apologies in advance to anyone I might offend.
The old school version of data journalism, which is called computer assisted reporting, maintains that a data story is first and foremost a story and should be viewed as such: you are investigating and interrogating the data as you would a witness, but the data isn’t itself a story, but rather a way of gathering evidence for the claims posed in the story. Every number cited needs to be independently supported with a secondary source.
Really important journalism lives in this context and is supported by the data, and the journalists in this realm are FOIA experts and speak truth to power in an exciting way. Think leaks and whistleblowers.
The new school vision of data journalism – again, entirely oversimplified – is that, by creating interesting data interactives that allow people to see how the news affects them – whether that means a map of “stuff happening” where they can see the stuff happening near them, or a big dataset that people can interact with in a tailored way, or a jury duty quiz that allows people to see how answers might get them kicked off or kept on a jury.
I imagine that some of these new-fangled approaches don’t even seem like stories at all to the old-school journalists, who want to see a bad guy caught, or a straight-up story told with a twist and a surprise and a “human face”. I’m not sure many of them would even get past the pitch stage if proffered to a curmudgeonly editor (and all editors are curmudgeonly, that’s just a fact).
The new interactive stories do not tell one story. Instead, they tell a bunch of stories to a bunch of people, and that interaction itself becomes the story. They also educate the public in a somewhat untamed way: by interacting with a database a reader can see variations in time, or in space, or in demographic, at least if the data is presented carefully.
Similarly, by seeing how each question on a jury duty quiz nudges you towards the plaintiff or the defendant, you can begin to see how seemingly innocuous information collected about you accumulates, which is how profiles are formed, on and offline.