Nicolas Kayser-Bril 2017-12-18
A Huge Success And A Failure Of Data Journalism

The success of data journalism is represented in several mega leaks in the past decade.  The process was started by WikiLeaks with the Afghan war logs. That was when WikiLeaks was given a database of events that had happened in Afghanistan with the NATO armies and they analyzed the database with different journalists from different media outlets to produce stories. That was the first time when the heart of the story was a database. To analyze it, they needed to do data journalism in the sense that they needed to have technologists. They needed to have developers working together with journalists. There was also the Iraq war logs which was a WikiLeaks project. The methodology that WikiLeaks developed was reused by another consortium of journalists called ICIJ (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). They reused the methodology in order to produce the actual leaks. During the first few weeks, there were a lot of conversations about the leak itself. Journalists analyzed gigabytes or terabytes of data.

But what is the audience interested in? Indeed, there was almost as much talk about the leak itself than about the stories told by the leaks. If you look at the Panama papers and make parallels between the last two, you see that there was not much talk about the leak but much more about the content itself. The leaks have become normal. They are going to keep working with the same methodology: bringing journalists around the database.

The European investigative collaborations conducted investigations on football leaks. The Football Leaks were very similar to the Paradise papers and Panama papers. They received a dump of documents, mostly emails, from football agents and they were able to investigate how money was flowing in big name football clubs. They carried out other investigations, again, following this idea of one database and a group of technical people working together on an investigation.

To make a story out of data, the newsroom needs journalists, even if the newsrooms will be transformed in the future. The newsroom will not be turned into data hubs. They will not be turned into small Bloombergs. The reason for this, is not that it was a bad idea. The reason for this, is that they missed the opportunity.

The data now is interviewed by someone else. There are companies that are providing data but these companies are not newsrooms. A company that has data on every sport games, all around the world, in real time, might be a useful source for a newsroom. A data about a football game was sold to a newspaper and a TV station so that they could display the results and tell stories. Data companies are transformed from a small startup with very little money to the largest provider of sports data. None of the sports media outlets became a data hub for sports data, even though it would have been easier for them for delivering stories. Other website specializes on travel data. The problem with newsrooms is that as long as they do not make a priority to collect data and to create databases, they will not be viable. 

Most newsrooms are still not very good at working with numbers. In the United States, an article misinterpreted data. It was not a political topic. It was just a pure mistake. They try to make a line chart which is probably the easiest thing possible. Journalists got it wrong because they just put in the dots randomly. The dots had nothing to do with the values. They showed it live on TV without anyone noticing that it was wrong.

A good example from India is the Hindustan Times that is the biggest quality daily in India. It tried to create also a database on hate crimes. After a few months, the project was stopped. No one really knows why. Probably it happened for political reasons. It is hard for newsrooms to do these projects in the long term. The Washington Post collected data for the past three years on how many people were killed by the police in the United States. It is an exception rather than the rule.

Quite a big chunk of data journalism was done by agencies or by small newsrooms. The project about the road in Siberia was not published by a news organization. It was published by Transparency International. Transparency International is a fairly small NGO in Russia. These small players will not have the money to pay for a fast lane internet access. They will have less traffic which means that they will have less money. That leads to a conclusion that they will have less incentive to do data journalism.  Large media organizations are expected to keep hiring data journalists in order to develop data culture.