Facta: a few steps closer to our first case study

… and the changes I had to adjust to in my journey to build it

elisabetta tola
Mar 29 · 7 min read

Can we use science to improve our approach to journalism — to make it more transparent, accountable, useful? If journalism is the first draft of history, shouldn’t we use a more solid methodology? We could, I believe, draw inspiration from the researchers who develop hypotheses, look for data, check sources and resources, and test their assumptions before we write, shoot video or design a visualization. Some of you might argue that this is what good journalists do, and it is true. But it is not what most journalists and media do. And this is a problem.

When I started my journey toward the development of Facta, our new journalistic venture, I thought I had a very clear idea of the project’s goals, as well as the process to build it. But working on it as a Tow-Knight fellow in entrepreneurial journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, I have become increasingly aware how much I need to study, experiment, adjust and prototype.

Formicablu: science made accessible through journalistic skills

For years, I have been focusing on how to make science available to people who are not experts in it. The pure essence of the work my team and I have been performing at formicablu, our Italian science communication agency, since we started in 2005 has been trying different formats, techniques, data visualizations, video and digital animations to improve the accessibility of science.

In a nutshell, we have used journalism and its tools to give our readers and listeners entry into the research laboratories and institutions, the data, the fascinating discovery stories and sometimes even the controversies. We have developed our own style, our own signature and our own language. We have become more and more involved in projects with a very vast array of clients who are, most of the time, partners more than customers. We have been working within EU-funded as well as national projects, with great freedom to develop communication strategies to bring science to different communities and audiences.

At the same time, I have been freelancing all along, sometimes as an explainer, sometimes as a reporter, sometimes even experimenting with investigative journalism. Last year, at the European Conference of Science Journalists, I was part of a panel discussing why science journalism is rarely investigative. Well, I said, it is because we are not brave enough. We prefer quite basic explanatory science, sometimes even being content with just a sort of translational work from technical jargon into more common language. This approach is usually less controversial, and we feel part of a community, that of pro science people. Yet at the same time it rarely produces real benefits for people; it is confined to the realm of knowledge for its own sake by people who already cherish science.

And I do not want that anymore. We cannot linger any longer; we have to be more committed to journalism: use our entire toolkit to investigate, report and connect; look for stories and not only for explanations; look for impacts; understand the complicated processes that lie beneath scientific enterprises; be very open about the controversies and not be content to show only good and positive results. We are perceived as being always on scientists’ side, and this should not be the case. We should be speaking for the people, for the communities, for the ones who may need science but may not be sure where to find it and how to deal with it.

Facta: building transparent journalism using a scientific approach and method

So I decided to start a new venture, one fully dedicated to build a better journalism. There are many reasons, some of which are explained in my previous post. And as I focus on building this new project, it becomes clearer that this time we need to bring a science toolkit into journalism. Science is not only the vault of stories and data we enjoy talking and reading about, but also a frame of mind that can help journalists improve their approach to finding facts, to evaluating them, to either confirming or discarding them.

One thing is very clear: journalism today is under attack. And particularly very good journalism, brave journalism, the kind that is investigating powerful people and dark players, corporations and governments. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of very mediocre journalism out there. An enormous amount of very basic and often inaccurate “cut and paste” products. An enormous amount of journalism that doesn’t care about truth, about verification, about real significance, about impact on people. An enormous amount of journalism that is performed as a very bad, low-quality job, with no dedication, no passion, no mental commitment. And this happens for a number of reasons, some even understandable. But certainly it is not the kind of journalism our societies need. It is not the kind of journalism that is the pillar of democracy, or the key to respond to people’s needs for good quality information.

While I was working on business models, value propositions, project plans, north stars and growth equations, and at the same time talking to many, many people to analyze the gaps, the critical issues in the world of journalism, I start playing with the idea that we have a potential solution at hand: using the scientific method and approach to investigate reality.

My Facta team and I do have a very unfair advantage: we all have solid research backgrounds. Some in fields that are perceived as more traditionally scientific, from bio sciences to hard ones, and others in history and philosophy, equally if not even more important in fostering critical thinking and in challenging ideas and facts. We can use this advantage to investigate reality. We know how to state hypotheses and how to test them. And we know how to collect data and work with them. We know how to find scientific literature and evaluate the impact of publications and reports. We know scientists working in many different fields, and we are capable of finding our way through the research world, which, believe me, sometimes makes you feel you’re entering another dimension. And we know how to use all of these skills in our reporting, complementing them with stories explored and collected in the field.

Getting ready to experiment

What does Facta do? It focuses on stories relevant to the entire Mediterranean region — a region that was once the epicenter of civilization and multicultural trade and exchange, and is now a stage for wars, conflicts, the drama of migration and that of a very serious climate crisis.

Facta will dive deep into topics that are relevant to at least two Mediterranean countries at a time. From the beginning, we will form a team of journalists from the involved countries and work with selected tech and scientific experts, as well as with representatives of local communities. These key players will be involved in the reporting phase to assess the continuing findings, and to give feedback and make sure the work will address their information needs.

Our final output? An innovative journalistic product, in formats that will be decided depending on the story, multimedia and/or data viz, or other factors. We’ll also curate the relevant publications we use, scientific articles, reports, etc., and all the raw interviews, except those with people whose identities need to be protected for security reasons. And then we’ll publish all the data we have collected, available to all in a form that will allow interaction and selective visualization.

If you are thinking that data journalism is already done this way, I can argue that this is rarely true. “Data journalism shouldn’t be pretty,” said one of the innovation experts I have interviewed recently in preparing my project. Others expressed the same idea: “It should serve the people; it should be useful to the people.” Even according to this recent publication on Digital Journalism, this is not often the case, both for lack of real transparency and for reliance on very few and often merely institutional sources of data. As a result, current data journalism is not, as a matter of fact, increasing much trust or usability. That’s why I’d like to approach it from a different perspective.

Everything will be published on our website, but also in syndication with other publications, national and local. Moreover, local journalists not directly involved in the project from the beginning will still be able to access the materials to produce local stories for their audiences.

Given that all ingredients and the recipe will be available, our work will be more accountable. It will serve to regain trust and to enhance transparency — a challenge, I know, and not an easy one. But one I feel quite ready to embrace, and one I hope to be working on with many of you for the next few years.

(Again, thanks to Diane Nottle for polishing my English)

(Image credits: Card puncher, Public Domain via Wikimedia; Woman technician, Robert Yarnall Richie [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons; formicablu)

Journalism Innovation

Ideas, Experiments and Explorations in Entrepreneurial Journalism, from the Tow-Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY

elisabetta tola

Written by

Data, tech&science journalist @formicablu, @radio3scienza @ddjIT @Agenzia_Italia. Founder @facta_ and @towknightcenter #EJ19 fellow

Journalism Innovation

Ideas, Experiments and Explorations in Entrepreneurial Journalism, from the Tow-Knight Center at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY