CAMP 2016: In everyday reporting, make data your friend

Journalists followed along with MaryJo Webster as she taught data journalism tips at the data journalism workshop at JAWS CAMP.

Story by Sarah Ellis and Brenna Goth, 2016 JAWS Fellows | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Don’t settle for just quoting the local sheriff on overtime pay. Explore all the data yourself and ask your own questions. That’s what MaryJo Webster did as a data editor at The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

What she found in the data laid the basis for a story on staffing shortages in the sheriff’s department that sent overtime costs soaring. Were sergeants or foot patrol officers getting the most overtime? Were special events driving a lot of overtime work? Was there something important this data could tell her?

As a journalist, you can get data on almost anything you want, MaryJo said. Once you have it, there are many ways to use the data.

MaryJo shared tips Friday in the “Using Data in Everyday Assignments Workshop” at JAWS CAMP 2016 in Roanoke. Here are highlights from MaryJo’s training:

1. Ask your data questions.

Data is much like the human sources journalists interact with all the time, MaryJo said. You can ask questions of the data, and it will give you different answers, depending on how you frame them.

Like the people journalists talk to, data also has limitations of what it does and doesn’t know. A good start, MaryJo said, is to take “human questions” and convert them into data questions. But unlike people, data will let you question it for hours and never kick you out of an office, MaryJo said.

2. Clean your data.

Every data set will have a flaw, MaryJo said. A journalist’s job is to find mistakes or irregularities in how information is entered. A column of state names, for instance, could include differences like abbreviations or the full name.

If it’s going to be important to your analysis, you need to clean it up,” MaryJo said.

3. “Math is not scary.”

It only takes basic math for journalists to draw conclusions from data, MaryJo said. Using formulas in Excel or Google Sheets can help you analyze large data sets quickly. One trick to remember how to calculate percent change? “NOO.” The formula is (new value – old value) divided by old value.

4. Use pivot tables to summarize.

Ask for a complete record of data and summarize it yourself. The more summarized your data is, the fewer questions you can ask it; summarized data, though can be helpful in drawing conclusions. Pivot tables help you narrow down your data by category.

5. Data can’t give you everything.

Once you analyze data, find people to help you understand what it means. Data can tell you the “what, when and where” of a story, MaryJo said, but it can’t tell you why. Ask experts for help and do the research you normally would for a story. Don’t just give your readers numbers, MaryJo said.

“You need people to tell you the why and what does this mean,” she said.

And a few more quick tips from MaryJo:

  • Keep an original copy of your data set separate from the data set you’re using for analysis.
  • Write down questions you want to ask your data, and keep notes about your analysis and how you did it.
  • After you’ve analyzed your data, do it again a different way. You might confirm your first analysis, find flaws or find a more efficient way to work through the data.
  • If something doesn’t look right, it’s probably wrong. Use your common sense!
  • MaryJo’s website offers more information on her data journalism training materials, including how to use spreadsheets and tips on where to find data.