It’s time to look more critically at data journalism
A conversation with Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru, editors of the Data Journalism Handbook 2: Towards a Critical Data Practice
The field of data journalism has travelled a long way since 2012, the year of publication of the first edition of the Data Journalism Handbook. Not just because of more sophisticated technologies, or a different economic setting, but also because society and culture have changed.
We’ve seen major initiatives like the Snowden leaks and the Panama Papers, or scandals like Cambridge Analytica and also debates and controversies around the role of data, platforms and digital technologies in society. Many tough questions have been raised about what data journalism is, whom it is for and what it might do in digital societies.
So how to make sense of the field of data journalism and its changing role in the contemporary world? We asked Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru, the editors of the newly launched beta version of The Data Journalism Handbook 2.
What does “Towards a Critical Data Practice” mean and why is it so important we take this angle in data journalism today?
We take “critical data practice” to be the task of modifying data practices in light of critical reflection (which we have previously written about here and here, inspired by artificial intelligence researcher Philip E. Agre’s notion of “critical technical practice” ).
“One foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique,” Philip E. Agre.
Critical reflection can come from many sources and traditions. In the context of academic research, this may include fields such as critical theory, political economy, new media studies, science and technology studies, gender studies and critical race studies.
Beyond academia, the critique may be inspired by public discourse, social movements and activist groups. Such critical reflection can involve reflecting on the politics, power relations and broader social, political, cultural and economic settings of data practices.
As we discuss in the introduction to the book, there are many reasons why such critical questions about data journalism arise. We see it as our task in the book to stay with these questions and consider how they might suggest changes to how things are done.
Sometimes this can involve asking simple questions like: “Where does data come from?”, “Who is data journalism for?” or “What kinds of participation, citizenship or relations does data journalism enable?”.
As we show throughout the book, data journalists are responding inventively to such questions in many different ways. That includes reacting to a lack of data by making their own; investigating data, platforms and algorithms; or experimenting with visual or participation formats for inviting the public to make sense with data.
What are the “twelve challenges for critical data practice”? And why do you leave them to the readers as open questions?
The “twelve challenges for critical data practice” in the introduction are our own proposal for areas for experimentation that have emerged in the course of the editorial process and our associated research.
They are intended in the spirit of “grand challenges”: large or different challenges which may require interdisciplinary teams, time and resources to address. They are areas that may benefit from collaborations between data journalists and other actors — whether universities, public institutions or civil society groups.
They are open-ended as they are intended to inspire experimentation, and many of them would be suitable as prompts for group projects on data journalism courses. Some of these things are those that data journalists are interested in, but may not always have the time or resources for. Such as archiving their work or finding suitable ways to account for its impact.
Some of them build on practices that are already described in the book. For example, accounting for platforms and algorithms in a way which treats them not just as technical artefacts but as socio-technical systems which both shape and are shaped by cultural and social practices.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about data journalism while working on the book?
Drawing on researchers such as Susan Leigh Star, one of our starting points for the book was looking at data practices not just in terms of representations but also in terms of relations. In other words how a story about, say, segregation in US cities is not only an articulation of facts about demography and geography but also how it assembles relations between census data, statistical operations, visual formats, code libraries, narrative techniques, editorial practices and social media audiences.
We’ve found this a fascinating lens — understanding data journalism as a kind of creative, curatorial craft or choreography in bringing different elements together in a project.
It has led us to surface stories about the alliances, mobilisations, collaborations and networks that data journalism has built on, tapped into, or given rise to. Such as noticing trees in cities, showing connections between products and colonialism, gathering communities to map land conflicts, supporting citizen journalists to help marginalised groups and many other things.
The first 21 chapters of the Data Journalism Handbook 2 were released in December. They are just a teaser of the full book content, which is made up of more than 70 contributions from data journalists and researchers from all around the world.
You can read the Data Journalism Handbook 2 beta here.
The full version of The Data Journalism Handbook: Towards A Critical Data Practice will be released on Amsterdam University Press this year. It will be an open access book, thanks to the support from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).
If you’re interested in helping us translate the book, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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