Monday, February 25, 2013

Learning to Count

"1, 2, 3, 4, Let's Go!" Journalists are words people. They take pride in their propensity to pun and parse and prune and parry. They are also instinctive types. They tend to rank gut feel above logic and numbers. In a nutshell, journalists are analog people lost in a digital era. And this may be their problem.

The world isn't short of scribes. It isn't short of pundits. It isn't short of 'look-at-me' performers. The world is short of people who can bring meaning and clarity to oceans of data. The world is short of reliable, trusted voices who can safely ignore the prefabricated bogus narratives being pumped out by institutions (including the mainstream media) and tell us what is really going on.

This vital role would seem to be tailor made for journalists, a profession whose most successful practitioners have traditionally combined the traits of innate curiosity, scepticism, doggedness, independent mindedness, a drive to expose hidden facts and a flair for telling stories.

But in this digital world, the problem is not so much hidden facts, but uninterpreted ones. We are awash in data - on the economy, on the climate, on education, on health, on defence, on immigration.  All the information is out there - or most of it. What's in short supply are people who can both organise the data and make sense of it for us.

Notoriously innumerate and often proudly technophobic, journalists are missing an historic opportunity to redefine their role. I have lost count of the number of newspaper journalists, usually holding redundancy cheques, who have told me they "hate maths" or are "no good at computers".

This is unforgivable for a group of people who claim to be professional communicators. It's like a town crier around the time of Gutenberg saying they are "no good at books". If the industry that employs you is crumbling because of new technology, then get up to speed or get out.

In some ways, it has never been a better time to be a journalist. All the tools you need to gather, analyse and publish information are at your fingertips. You don't needs a Big Daddy newspaper company to enable this for you. You can do it all yourself with a few RSS feeds, Evernote, Excel, and Google tools like Alerts, Public Data Explorer and Blogger.

Of course, everyone has access to those tools. And gadgets alone won't make you a better journalist. But combining basic digital literacy with the traditional journalism skills cited above should be the minimum requirement for anyone wanting to succeed as a post-industrial journalist.
If you add a facility for numbers to digital and verbal literacy, you have a killer combination. How many journalists are adept on Excel?  Not enough.

Understanding data, a basic grasp of statistics and confidence in the tools used to analyse data should be entry level requirements for journalists, particularly in a world where large news organisations employ statistics dishonestly to tell stories that suit their ideological and/or commercial interests.

A lack of understanding among journalists of how data can be used (and misused) is why the media so often fails us on stories involving the economy, climate change, education, health, retirement, financial markets  and just about every policy issue that connects with our lives. The only data that  is regularly crunched on our front pages are the endless political opinion polls that the media pay for.

Without a facility for independently analysing data, journalists risk end up being mere note-takers, parroting the self-serving claims of rival interest groups. It is what is happening to us now. And it is why democracy will fail unless journalists get up to speed.

It's also why some of the most important work now being done in new journalism is by bloggers like Possum Comitatus here in Australia or Nate Silver in the US or Simon Rogers in the UK.  Listen to Rodgers in this Ted talk. He's neither a data monkey nor a gadget guru. He is just a guy who uses freely available digital tools to tell stories in new ways.

Rogers' view is that data journalists are the punk rockers of the media, breathing new life into a profession that risks becoming redundant. For my money, this is the most exciting new development in journalism today. And I if were starting in the trade all over again, it's what I'd do:



  1. It can't be all bad if @laurieOakes and @farm51 tweet

  2. > "hate maths" or are "no good at computers"

    Those responses are just copouts. The computer has been the white-collar tool of trade for decades, the word processor the standard application for any writer. If journalists are unable to use a computer or apply high school mathematics, then they deserve that redundancy cheque.

  3. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi is a fine example. He can do entertaining small-L liberal commentary on politics and society, but he's gone in hard on the financial sector and manages to explain the simple scams and glad-handed politics behind the barrage of finance-talk intended to obscure the real events.

  4. Agreed on Taibbi. His recent expose of HSBC was a cracker:

  5. Superb article thanks Mr D. Technology is not the barrier for mainstream journos, it's the laziness of thinking the same fact-free opinion pieces will get enough clicks, and the fear that data & numbers will reveal stuff that doesn't fit the narrative - which is to get Labor out.