This is an archive of the philosophy I originally wrote as a grad student in 2010. Since then, I’ve written a new one, which can be found here.
Data. It’s what the world is made up of — a fact that’s so obvious to me that I never considered the term ‘data journalism’ until recently. But the ideas are ones I’ve been living with for a long time.
I’ve been fascinated by the combination of journalism and technology for much of my life. Journalism is the passing on of information, and technology allows us to structure it in an organized way, so it may be analyzed.
As for me, I enjoy spending my days in languages both literary and computational. That’s what makes me a data journalist.
Data work, or computer-assisted reporting, isn’t just about using math and statistics to find stories — although that’s essential. It’s about how we perceive and restructure the information within our world. That means parsing the information others post online, creating our own data sets and just looking at life a little bit differently. You can make anything fit into cell A1 if you just adjust your perspective. And then the story just jumps out.
I don’t use the term computer-assisted reporting often, preferring to refer to it as “CAR” or “data,” and that’s for a reason. All reporting is computer-assisted at this point, it’s how people write and file their articles. Everyone’s researching with Google searches, and that’s not even broaching how crowdsourcing social networks is data. But looking at structuring information to find a story where there wasn’t one before, that strikes me as what CAR is all about. It’s so much deeper than knowing how to use Microsoft Word. There was a time when the term “computer-assisted reporting” made sense. But it seems to me that in the current time, it just doesn’t give credit to the specialization where credit is due.
Starting around October 2009, about a month into a computer-assisted reporting class that would dramatically shift my career path (for the better!), I realized that serious computer programming skills were necessary to do the kind of journalistic work I yearned to produce.
(Thanks are owed to many for their help, but this class’ instructor, the New York Times’ Derek Willis, gets much of the blame/credit for showing me what was possible and helping me to believe it was possible for me to do it.)
I enjoy indulging my journalistic curiosity by dabbling in all sorts of tools as they come up for various projects, and then using them when they’re relevant. But it’s important to note that even if you buy a 98-piece tool set, chances are the tool you need is the 99th item — which wasn’t included. With that in mind, I believe what’s important isn’t how many languages you know, but your ability to pick the right one, and pick it up quickly. Nevertheless, you’re better off having 98 tools than none at all, so I find myself drawn back to learning as much about programming as possible.
I will always believe that it is up to the journalists, in this era, to expand their definitions of how they report and convey news. Never before have we had access to so many people, so many places, and so much data! We can add to that information, and carefully analyze what’s already out there to find the truth. Corny though it may sound, the fun of deeply exploring our world is what motivates me to get up each morning.