Sharing our thoughts and best practices.

Blog

Category Archives: Watchdog

Data journalism unearths stories in Zambia

As part of Kiplinger’s ongoing mission to train professional journalists worldwide, I spent the first week of May in Zambia, where, at the request of the U.S. Department of State and the embassy in Lusaka, I taught 22 journalists the fundamentals of data journalism.

It was a challenge given their understanding of data use in reporting and their abilities to get information from the government. In the end, we overcame both and the hopeful results will be more informative, fact-based journalism to the public.

Challenge one will be getting information from a government that controls a large share of the publications, TV and radio stations. Those employees, underpaid and overworked, aren’t likely to flex their press muscles to demand access to data. Those who work for private media outlets and are often seen as government oppositions, are spoon-fed selected information and denied access to raw data. But, they are thirsty and driven. And, tired of being denied.

Zambian journalists spent four days at the U.S. Embassy learning data journalism.

The second challenge is technological. In a nation where internet services are spotty and WiFi is a hit-and-miss proposition, spending a lot of time sifting through data or even searching for it can be difficult. They can almost forget, at this point, building their own data sets. They’re not there yet.

So, the week focused on the ins and outs of starting data projects, no matter the size, the search for data and how to manage it. We covered finding, uploading, sorting and interpreting data. I used Xcel and Google Sheets, walking them through the simplest ways to control data. We even delved into data-visualization-made-easy apps.

Thank goodness for the data site that is the World Bank.

As we methodically data mined  World Bank collections we unearthed an amazing amount of information they’d never seen. In some cases, the data refuted the government party line on poverty, health care, environmental protection and literacy. Shock.

Kabwe, a town about 90 minutes by car from the capital, is renowned for being one of the most polluted spots in the world. For years, a lead mine provided the mineral for the world at the health and environmental expense of the people and their land. Today, scavengers still mine the remnants by hand. Health issues are aplenty. The environment has been laid to waste. Data from the government is almost impossible to get. The World Bank, which has poured millions (one single donation topped at $60 million USD) into remediation of the town, has a treasure trove of data and reports online.

As we peeled back the layers it was heartening to see that most of the journalists had never seen that organization’s data and reports. They rapidly took notes and openly expressed their frustrations about not knowing this important data sitting in cyberspace for years. This was a win for journalism.

You could see the lights coming on as each day we discovered more data and they learned more skills. Story ideas popped into their heads. The desire to refresh old stories was embraced. Kawbe is still a very active story 12 years after the mine closed. I think it will get renewed attention in the coming months. The same became true when we reviewed fertility, poverty, environmental, agricultural and literacy data sets. They have plenty of stories to take to the people.

And, that was really the mission – first to convince them they were leaving a lot of stories behind by not invoking data, and second, give them the abilities to go after the data and manage it for the betterment of their reporting.

The end game is to empower the press to work more diligently and productively to become a true Fourth Estate pillar that shores up democracy in that nation. Hats off to the Zambian journalists who will take on that responsibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read More

The media’s addiction to political polls

(Editor’s Note: On the day this blog was posted nine polls on the 2016 presidential election were released. Three were revealed the day before.)

On a weekly basis in the United States, pollsters tied to some university, media group or political agenda release their “scientific” take on the 2016 presidential campaign.

Not long after, the airwaves are filled with chatty pundits who will spend the better part of the day deciphering the poll results.

Later in the week, a different set of pundits will talk about how bad political polling has become in the U.S. and lament the credibility of the surveys and their results.

And this will be repeated the following week.

Continue reading

Read More

Journalists seek police body-cam videos

A year ago Adam Marshall submitted the first-ever records request for body camera video to Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. It was in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, but before the shooting death by police of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and months before Freddie Gray died of spinal injuries in Baltimore police custody.

“I’m still waiting on the results of that request,” said Marshall, an attorney for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, speaking at the Ohio Law and Media Conference in Columbus last month.

Accessing footage of body-worn cameras — the latest technological bandage applied to the complex issue of hemorrhaging race relations in America — poses particular headaches for journalists.

Continue reading

Read More

Sunshine Week exposes government’s lack of transparency

This week was National Sunshine Week, or as journalists like to call it, Preaching to the Choir Week.

Each year the media recognizes valiant efforts to keep public records and meetings open for the sake of a transparent, democratic government. It’s a noble cause to be sure and every state is blessed with laws to ensure the public’s business is conducted publicly.

The fight for open government is a year-round struggle. Despite laws on the books in every state, each day public officials, from the smallest municipalities to the federal agencies, find roadblocks to thwart attempts to make public endeavors actually public.

This is a brief way to honor Sunshine Week, the heroes and villains, with a roundup I’ll call Public Records 101.

Continue reading

Read More