Data journalist, a pointless job title?

Thoughts of a geek turned “data journalist”


Nowadays every newsroom wants to produce data-driven stories. As a consequence of this trend, data journalist positions are routinely advertised.

But what do such positions actually entail? If it is rather clear what data-driven journalism means, its brother and job title term data journalist is not. Semantically, it sounds logical that to do data journalism, one should be a data journalist. Yet in practise, I find this job title ends up being confusing for everybody.

Disclaimer: my job title says “data journalist”. And I am currently the only one in my newsroom.

When I say to fellow practitioners that I am a data journalist, they ask me what I do specifically. To people not in the field, they will at best assume that I do data visualisation. I am fond of data visualisation, but equating data journalism to visualisation would be to simplify it. Data visualisation might be the core element of a story, but one can also do compelling data-driven reporting without it.

About 5 years ago when data journalism started becoming popular, it was clearer what the so-called data journalists would perform. They were expected to be jack-of-all-trades journalists, creating data-led stories from A to Z (messing with data, visualising it and writing).

The rise of simple free interactive charting solutions (such as datawrapper, infogram, … ) has considerably democratised data visualisation. What used to be performed only by data journalists is now more commonly a standard skill among digital journalists.

And these days major newsrooms have dedicated data-driven journalism groups, where people tend to specialise and work in team. Here are for instance some job titles of people working in data journalism:

  • Computer-assisted/ computational journalist
  • Hacker/coder journalist
  • Visual journalist
  • News app developer
  • Data editor
  • Graphics editor
  • Data visualisation reporter
  • Information designer

It is of course hugely beneficial to be fluent in all the different aspects of data journalism. And I guess that the term data journalist is still used to convey the multidisciplinary aspects of the job, the mix of writing and coding skills.

But there is also this kind of job ads, where data journalist became as with the term big data so hype and so overused that it means anything and nothing at the same time.

I assume this is partly due media organisations wanting to jump on the data-driven journalism bandwagon, having no clue what it entails.

But beyond semantic considerations, what is the big deal? In data-driven journalism, we are usually concerned with more important issues.

My only grip with the prevailing meaning of “data journalist” is that its unclarity might create unattainable expectations from colleagues or bosses. Nowadays with so much high quality data-driven journalism stories/apps around, outsiders to the field typically underestimate the array of skills or teamwork necessary to produce such content.

So what alternative would be meaningful for people in the field and outsiders alike to describe a good all-rounder data journalist? Solo data journalist? I am amused by terms such as: data-ninja/ -cook/ -Swiss army knife/ -MacGyver — journalist. They may not be the most informative, but they have the merit to convey the variety of the job’s skills. Quartz’s founding editor Kevin Delaney uses the term polymath to qualify a journalist with coding and data visualisation skills. Personally, I am fond of full-stack data journalist, despite being only understandable by geeks.

Please let me know if you have any suggestion, I wish to update my twitter profile. But until then, I stick with this pointless job title of mine.

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About me: I am an ex-geneticist / data-scientist. I joined over a year ago a Swiss news outlet as data journalist, with no prior media experience. I write about digital media, data analysis and data-driven journalism.