Friday, March 21, 2014

CJR "The Pitfalls of Data Journalism"

From the Columbia Journalism Review's Data Points blog:

FiveThirtyEight won’t have broad appeal without narrative
The power in data journalism comes from the ability for numbers and statistics to examine a subject in a measurable way. Sometimes the numbers in play provide the answer to a question. Other times they reinforce, cast doubt on, or simply illuminate a take on a given subject. Data is a powerful storytelling tool, and nothing more. But Nate Silver seems to think numbers have a newsiness all on their own. When he introduced his polished, expanded, data-driven FiveThirtyEight earlier this week, he wrote that one of his goals will be to make numbers-based journalism more appealing to a general readership, “to make data journalism vivid and accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing rigor and accuracy.”

But based on the topics of the site has covered so far, it seems that Silver and his team are trying to reach that broad audience without offering a narrative anchor to give the site’s pieces broader appeal, and it’s hard to see the site’s audience growing beyond statistics nerds unless the site’s reporters realize numbers are a means of storytelling, not the story itself.

“These are ‘tweener’ pieces,” economist Tyler Cowen wrote in Marginal Revolution, “too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers. I want something more like the very good Bill Simmons analytic pieces on Grantland, with jokes too, and densely packed narrative, yet applied to a much broader range of topics.”

In its first few days, FiveThirtyEight’s numbers-savvy writers have written about how to parse the words of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and how the US and Chinese current account balances (a comprehensive measure of a nation’s international dealings) compare. It’s serious, and arguably academic stuff. There’s also the story about the best deals on the McDonald’s menu based on weight, which I’m sure real numbers nerds are getting a kick out of....MORE