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United Nations World Data Forum Webinar — Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism

By: Brady Press

Source: UN World Data Forum

With increasing public awareness of the importance of data in our every day lives, and COVID-19 data taking center stage over the past year, the topic of communicating data to the public is becoming a popular conversation within both the statistics and journalism communities. In fact, we saw this emerge as a key theme at last year’s UN World Data Forum. Check out our session summaries from two events from the Data Forum that set the stage:

As a follow up to the Data Forum and continuation of an ongoing webinar series, the UN Statistics Division held a webinar earlier this week, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism, to discuss current trends and challenges. In case you missed the webinar, see below for a recording as well as our session notes and main takeaways.

Source: UN Stats; https://unstats.un.org/unsd/undataforum/

Panelists

Key takeaways

  • Journalists need reliable data that’s easy to understand, so those producing the data need to provide user-friendly data, but journalists also need the skillset to analyze the data
  • There are different types of journalists and, as a data producer, it’s important to know which type you are working with
  • It’s also important to do the necessary research to understand how people are viewing data (i.e. via mobile phone) and present it in the appropriate way
  • The public should be aware of data; data producers and journalists alike need to show the public how data is important for their well being

What’s currently being done with data and journalism?

Sarah Cohen, data journalist, author, Knight Chair, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, Arizona State University

  • There are different ways journalists use data, such as explanatory visualization — trying to use data to explain a trend or something that’s going on — versus accountability reporting — journalists holding institutions accountable for their reporting
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Sarah Cohen, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism / Arizona State University / January 2021
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Sarah Cohen, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism / Arizona State University / January 2021
  • In order to get better results with data used in journalism, data providers should release as much detail and background with their data as possible, not assume they know the purpose of the data, and train journalists on data quality. On the flip side, journalists need to do a better job of paying attention to data

Catherine Gicheru, Knight Fellow, Director of Africa Women Journalism Project, International Centre for Journalists

  • In many countries, the publicly available data is very old. Journalists must make relationships with those who have access to data, and gain the skills needed to make their own datasets when necessary
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Catherine Gicheru, Knight Fellow, Director Africa Women Journalism Project, International Centre for Journalists / January 2021
  • Journalists need to be able to collaborate; they must figure out if they have the correct data and if they are using it correctly
  • Journalists should also use data to give people information they can use to make decisions, and acknowledge that data used in the past may have not been complete and make sure that is disclosed in the future
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Catherine Gicheru, Knight Fellow, Director Africa Women Journalism Project, International Centre for Journalists / January 2021
  • The Africa Women Journalism Project has been able to train journalists in data literacy
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Catherine Gicheru, Knight Fellow, Director Africa Women Journalism Project, International Centre for Journalists / January 2021

Ashwell Jenneker, Deputy Director General, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA)

  • Data producers need to do more to make sure people and journalists understand data
  • At StatsSA, we have 4 data training sessions for journalists per year
  • We also write data stories — articles of interest written for non-statisticians to summarize specific releases of reports and cover specific themes
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Ashwell Jenneker, Deputy Director General, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) / January 2021
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Ashwell Jenneker, Deputy Director General, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) / January 2021
  • Data stories are on the rise. In 2017, data stories made up 8.5% of StatsSA’s unique page views for the entire website. This percentage has increased to 13.3% in Q1 of 2020/2021
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Ashwell Jenneker, Deputy Director General, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) / January 2021
  • What are best practices for data stories? Create short stories that can be shared on social media, come up with a catchy heading, and include at least one graphic. Consider providing a link to the raw data for those who want to dig deeper
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Ashwell Jenneker, Deputy Director General, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) / January 2021

Anders Pedersen, Resource Watch Director, World Resource Institute (WRI)

  • World Resources Institute trained 17 reporters on how to work with data broadly and how to use Resource Watch, and we followed up with mentoring and engagement for more than 10 months
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Anders Pedersen, Resource Watch Director, World Resource Institute (WRI) / January 2021
  • The Census Bureau holds trainings for journalists which are not necessarily well attended, but they have a cascading effect, like a train the trainer model, so they still have a big impact
Source: UN World Data Forum Webinar, Strengthening the Use of Data in Journalism / Anders Pedersen, Resource Watch Director, World Resource Institute (WRI) / January 2021
  • How can we make sure journalists have access to online classes as well as individualized mentoring?

What are the main challenges to data in journalism?

  • Journalists in many countries are under pressure from a business standpoint to get articles out the door quickly, which contrasts with the necessity of diving deep in data to properly incorporate it
  • Journalists “cherry pick” data — we as data producers need to understand why they do this. It’s helpful to think of journalists in different buckets — some just want a quote, some are trying to use data in original ways, some want to understand the data
  • Journalists can get the data wrong and present it incorrectly if we don’t invest in training them

How can data producers train journalists?

  • Get rid of the fear around data
  • Get them to understand how to scrape and clean down databases
  • Teach how to decipher between good quality data and bad quality data

Is it effective to use graphics to present data?

  • Complicated graphics get very little activity because many people are accessing articles from their phone and the graphics don’t translate well, and because people don’t actually love data that much, they love stories
  • If an infographic needs to be complicated in order to present the data, it’s probably not the appropriate way to present the data. An idea is to make the raw data set available and let the people who want to decipher it do so themselves

Brady Press is an Associate Director at Changing Our World, where she specializes in building strategic corporate citizenship programs. She is a consultant to SDGCounting and StartingUpGood, and is currently researching how COVID-19 is affecting the Sustainable Development Goals.

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