Paint by Numbers: Data Visualization for Journalists

IRE just had its annual convention. I followed it a bit from afar. One thing has become very clear, not only from seeing the tweets on the conference, but in seeing tweets from many others that data-driven reporting and data visualization is absolutely a must-have skill for journalists today. And it should be, as never before has so much information been available to reporters and the public as it is today.

Someone–the journalist–needs to make sense of the data. And what better way to make sense of data than to make it visual. As an information consumer, I say yes, please. As journalists, well, we often virulently prefer words to math. While there’s no getting off the hook as a reporter for knowing basic math skills, thank goodness for tools that help you do the heavy lifting, like spreadsheets.

Still, it’s always with some trepidation that I begin the data visualization/data-driven reporting unit with my advanced j-students. They are often as math-phobic as I am. (And when they aren’t, I feel like Oz at the moment when the crew peeks behind the curtain to see him.)

Here’s our schedule:

    1. They get a handout on the kinds of things data-driven and computer-assisted reporting can accomplish, followed by an exercise in which the students used tools such as Monitter and Topsy to track or find key words in Twitter.
    2. They watched a video on turning numbers into stories.
    3. They examined three data-driven pieces–one in the form of an article, the other two in the form of data visualization.
    4. They began working with Excel through several in-class exercises, culminating in a story that necessitates analyzing data.

And, finally, they watch a series of videos called “Journalism in the Age of Data.” Great series and one that I hope gets the students excited about the possibilities of using data.

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About Nancy Kaplan-Biegel

I am the journalism program coordinator at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA, as well as the adviser to The Skyline View.

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