Journalism data always needs context

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No one would ever accuse me of being a data geek, although nearly all of my newspaper stories over 17 years relied on numbers in some way.

I started my career in sports, for goodness sakes. Nothing gets more number-numbing than that.

As a business writer it was hard to write anything that wasn’t data sourced. City government, the courts, investigations — all had their own version of data crunching. I did all that and respected the data.

Data is once again center stage in journalism. It’s a cycle. I remember when data was big in the ‘80s. We called it computer-assisted reporting. Data was treated like the Holy Grail. I looked frequently at the Grail but mostly drank from my comforting Solo cup.

The reality is that data never went completely out of style. Good journalism has never abandoned the value of statistical information, although many times we’ve been asked to treat it as a means to an end, something that pumps up a story, not leads it.

Today, we toss out buzzwords like “analytics” and “metrics” as we strut our spreadsheets back into vogue.

This leads me to a couple of weeks ago when I helped with a data-crunching session for the National Association of Science Writers in Columbus. Kiplinger offers a training session on using Google Fusion Tables to make numbers less intimidating and to show how they can be the perfect instrument to guide reporting. Designed by Director Doug Haddix, a data aficionado, it’s a huge hit in this data-scraping and visualization world.

The most recent session, led by Columbus Dispatch reporter Jennifer Smith Richards, covered data in four forms: baseball salaries, gun ownership, county census and Baltimore homicide rates. The science writers loved it. It was informative and data nirvana for them.

At the end, I took a couple of minutes to talk about the use of numbers, and we had a productive discussion about how data can be dangerous at worst, misleading at a minimum, without proper context. Good journalism is about providing that service.

“Journalists are the perfect people for doing this, “ I said. “The difference between you and someone on the Internet, Facebook, pushing out raw statistics, is that you have an understanding about how to put those numbers into perspective and context.”

They agreed.

For instance, we learned that Switzerland has the third-highest rate of gun ownership in the world at 45 percent. The peace-loving Swiss? Really? Because, as one astute writer pointed out, every able-bodied male is a member of the volunteer army and, as such, must be equipped.

Without proper context, we wouldn’t understand why counties in North Dakota have the largest percentage population increases in the U.S. It’s because of the oil and natural gas boom taking place there. Same holds true for baseball salaries. The reason salary averages appear higher for designated hitters than, say, pitchers, is because there are fewer of them in that position from which to take the average. The truth is, pitchers generally are better compensated.

If you didn’t know any of that, you might conclude the Swiss are as gun loving as Americans, North Dakota is a popular relocation place for families, and DHs are grossly over paid. You’d be wrong in every case.

“Figures lie and liars figure,” the old saying goes. But, journalists who understand the value of data and add the proper perspective and context serve their highest calling: truth. Here’s to data and its growing popularity, but more so to the journalists who know how to use it the right way.

(Kevin Z. Smith is the deputy director of the Kiplinger Program.) 

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