First person: I spent three months learning data journalism with the BBC

Senior reporter Bev Holder will become Newsquest’s first ever Data Journalist after a three month secondment with the BBC’s shared data unit. Here, she explains what that training entailed and how she learned to love a spreadsheet.

There can’t be many local news reporters who would sneeze at the chance to head off on secondment to the BBC.

It’s the kind of opportunity I don’t believe has ever presented itself before. But thanks to the Local News Partnership between the Beeb and the regional press, which is also responsible for the new Local Democracy Reporting scheme, I was given a three-month crash course in the art of data journalism in the BBC’s Shared Data Unit in Birmingham.

Treated like part of the team from day one — myself and two fellow secondees from regional media were introduced to the rapidly expanding world of big data, and how the BBC and a growing number of newspaper groups are embracing it to find and tell compelling stories. Apart from council budget setting time or when the school league tables or hospital ratings are released, I’d rarely looked at a spreadsheet…and I’d certainly never created my own!

Many general news reporters, I suspect, fall into this category but the bright, new, alien world of data journalism is awash with spreadsheet admirers and masters, statistics graduates and even computer coders. It’s a daunting universe to dive into and confess you don’t even know the basics in Excel or Google sheets…and at first I couldn’t help but feel this just doesn’t feel like journalism. How wrong I was! During my time with the BBC I conquered my fear of spreadsheets — and had chance to learn an array of new skills I’d struggle to have time to while beavering away in the newsroom. I also had the opportunity to work on my first truly national story.

Many of us who recognise a good scoop have no doubt seen our pieces picked up (and in some cases plagiarised) by the tabloids but I’d never written anything intentionally set for a national audience. So the pressure was on — especially as the first batch of secondees in the relatively new Shared Data Unit had produced an extremely successful piece on the erosion of the UK’s bus network.

To put just a little more pressure on ourselves — myself and fellow secondees Nancy Cole (from ITV Central) and Aisha Iqbal (from the Yorkshire Evening Post) decided to undertake solo projects. Mine was on avoidable deaths and the link to poverty* after I stumbled on some recently released statistics from the ONS.

At first it felt a strange process — creating spreadsheets, charts and getting to grips with the rather mystifying ‘v look up’ function but as the weeks went by my spreadsheet fears and frustrations dwindled. Traditional reporting methods came back into play as I sourced quotes from the nations and case studies to tell the human side of the findings — and the result was a BBC News story that graced the front page of the corporation’s England, Scotland and Northern Ireland websites. It was also picked up by regional newspapers across the UK as well as The Times. I also found myself talking about the story live on various BBC radio stations and even had an enquiry from Panorama as programme-makers were coincidentally producing a TV piece on the same subject.

In total the story received around 260,000 hits and positive comments from all corners of the UK — and it really hit home just how impactful and far-reaching a data-driven piece of public interest journalism can be in these times of so-called ‘fake news’ — as data doesn’t lie.

*You can find Bev’s files and data on this project, along with links to how other publications’ used her data, on the BBC Data Unit’s Github page here.

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Behind Local News UK

The stories behind the stories, from the regional press in the UK