S.A.B.E.W. Wonk Panel
Ben Cassleman of 538 kicked off the data journalism panel at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Conference Friday, October 10, by discussing his analysis of Ferguson, Mo. In “The Poorest Corner of Town,” Cassleman studied the racial and economic breakdown of Ferguson and tried to find data supporting whether Ferguson is an outlier in either area. His findings said it isn’t.
“The idea that it is a terribly disproportionate in race or a terribly poor area just isn’t true,” Cassleman said.
Matthew Phillips, Finance and Markets Editor at Quartz, discussed the use of interactive graphics on Quartz’ website. In “All The World’s Trade Disputes” Quartz built a graphic to illustrate which companies compete with each other over a specific good. These graphics are not just for readers to interact with though. Phillips says many graphics they make are helpful to reporters as well.
“Say there is some story about higher tariffs, you can easily use this in additional reporting,” Phillips said.
Neil Irwin, Senior Economic Correspondent for The New York Times’ “Upshot,” discussed “How the Recession Reshaped the Economy, in 255 Charts,” an ambitious interactive graphic that shows hundreds of trend lines about different sectors of the economy. Irwin said people spent a lot of time with the graphic even though it can seem intimidating at first.
Getting the data is a big part of what data journalists do, and at times, it can become even a bigger job than analyzing the data itself.
Cassleman says it can also be tempting to write about the process, rather than the findings.
“There’s a little bit of a tendency in these stories to say ‘I had this question’ and then this didn’t work and this didn’t work and this didn’t work. Then this thing did work,” Cassleman said. “How do you marry the process that is very important to a lot of people and the finding?”
Phillips says he uses Chartbuilder to create charts quickly and tweet them out throughout the day. He looks for the numbers that people do not get other places. The labor force participation rate was the biggest example he gave. The labor force participation rate has generally fallen since the beginning of the recession.
Phillips says part of the reason is so many Americans are retiring. Phillips said a lot of people do not really understand why it is falling at the rate it is.
“It has become a big piece of political values. I just try to get the data out there, so that people can fight out what they think it means while they read my story,” Phillips said.
Annalyn Kurtz, the moderator, asked the panel whether journalists should learn how to code. Irwin said maybe, but learning a new subject may be just as useful to any newsroom.
Phillips jokingly said, “Yes... and Mandarin.” He thinks it’s a good idea, but he agrees there are definitely other skills that can be just as important.
Cassleman added the most important thing is every journalist learns how to understand the evidence in numbers and is able to figure out where to find the truth. He says that is becoming an absolutely basic skill everyone needs.
“Learning Stata or R might get you a job, but being able to read data well is absolutely imperative,” Cassleman said.