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Data journalism goes undercover

“Having basic data skills should be exactly as exciting as being able to send an email or make a phone call. Only then will data journalists lose their unicorn status, allowing the field of data journalism to simply disappear in the field of journalism.”

It’s my hope, more than my prediction, that 2019 will be the year in which data journalism goes undercover. All journalists should become data literate, and more journalists should learn basic data skills. And having basic data skills should be exactly as exciting as being able to send an email or make a phone call. Only then will data journalists lose their unicorn status, allowing the field of data journalism to simply disappear in the field of journalism.

Despite all the beautiful data productions I’ve seen throughout the year, it’s my hope that data productions will eventually go undercover too.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel described in The Elements of Journalism, the first task of the news journalist is “to verify what information is reliable and then order it so people can grasp it efficiently.” Thinking of all the beautiful but sometimes complex visual data journalism production I’ve seen, I dare to ask if all these forms of storytelling are “efficiently to grasp.” I’m a fan of high-end visuals, technological innovation, and new forms of storytelling — but I feel that visually modest journalism can be just as efficient, if not more.

Besides, isn’t the best data journalism invisible? Data-driven stories should center around the story, not around the data, analysis, or technology that keeps the story afloat. When reading, listening, or watching such productions, besides a possible data visualization, the public should not be actively thinking about data. If they do, they’re not thinking about the story. Why not? Isn’t the story efficient to grasp? Since journalism creates the map for citizens to navigate society with, we should make sure our maps are readable for all and read by many.

Of course this might be a lot to ask for. But in a world filled with fake news and alternative facts, we can only welcome more fact-based, data-driven journalism. And I think common knowledge of data, within and outside of journalism, would be a good start.

Winny de Jong is a data journalist at the Dutch national broadcast NOS.

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