The winds of change are rocking the world of journalism. In recent months, “data journalism” has become the industry altering trend in media, with new sites like Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight adhering strictly to the new discipline, while older newspaper giants like The Washington Post and the New York Times are creating internal blogs to build their own data journalism presence. So what’s behind this dramatic explosion? Ben Jones, senior product manager at Tableau Software, has some ideas.
Tableau Software was founded in 2003 as a project by a group of Stanford University students who came up with the idea for a software that could quickly visualize complex data sets. The company has since expanded their programs to include a free version of their software for journalists so that, as Jones describes, “we can help anyone who has data better see and understand what’s happening with that data.”
“New technology and the growth of open data is making data journalism more accessible in the news room,” Jones explained of the recent data journalism explosion. “Journalists are already telling great stories, but data can serve as the exclamation point for those facts.”
A great example of this is the New York Daily News’ award-winning dive into the city’s stop and frisk policies. The team there was able to use Tableau’s software to create visualizations based on thousands of locations detailed in police records of where the stop and frisk policy was being enacted. What resulted was a startling map showing just where the police were stopping the most suspects.
Jones disagrees with arguments that this style of reporting is just a trend, that it will quickly fall by the wayside as new forms of media rise up to take its place. “These tools are simply allowing journalists to tell their stories in more interesting and compelling ways,” he said. “Data journalism isn’t something separate, but rather is being woven into the fabric of traditional journalism.”
“The world is transitioning to a place that’s more comfortable with data based discussion and discord,” Jones continued. “As people become more numerically literate, it’s only a good thing – individuals will come to expect a quantitative backbone to the stories they read.”
Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight and arguably the father of modern data journalism, has expressed similar sentiments. In a recent interview, he said columnists and opinion writers, “don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically.”
“We’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis,” Silver went on to say in the same interview about why data journalism was preferable. “We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.”
For Jones, and others working with building the technology making data journalism so available, this is just the beginning. “The media right now is going through a period of innovation,” he said. “But we don’t need to take it so seriously. It’s fun to finally see the excitement that comes from taking a boring table of data and turning it into an engaging story.”