How to Become a Data JournalistSaturday, January 23, 2021
Something has changed for data journalists. In the past, information was scarce, but now, who doesn't get crammed with that? This makes dealing with data even more important if you want to become a data journalist.
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What does a data journalist do?
When information was scarce, the role of a journalist was as simple as collecting and disseminating the news. As of today, the flood of online data raises the threshold for journalists to sort through information. More often than not, they need to equip themselves with technical skills to be able to see through things and deliver newsworthy information to the public.
The question is, how to find the right data, and bring sense out of boundless information to the general public as a competent data journalist.
A data journalist is someone who uses statistics to facilitate the writing and reporting of news stories to provide insights based on relevant data. When searched in LinkedIn, some highlighted skills include web crawling, data visualization, analytical skills, data analytics, data mining, and so on.
Why do journalists learn to deal with data?
The words of Rebecca Borisona, a reporter at The Street best speak out the heart of data journalists:
“I firmly believe that data makes a story better and stronger in every case. It is one thing to collect a bunch of anecdotes about a trend you think is happening, but data is a gift to any contentious story. While a source may lie to you, or spin the facts, a careful look at the data will never lead you astray. There’s power in that.”
We are in a time when both rumors and facts go viral within minutes. Data, when used and analyzed properly, can help clarify rumors and reveal facts.
Data journalist Ashley did a survey during the 2019 Coronavirus outbreak. She scraped and visualized the live & death stats of COVID-19 from the Chinese government’s database, and calculated the mortality rate of the disease. The results turned out to be consistent with the official statistics of WHO, CDC, ECDE, NHC, and DXY. Data speaks for reliability.
How to break into data journalism?
To become a data journalist is not as difficult as we imagine. No matter what your goal is, to succeed in this field, just like in any others, the most essential part is to move forward step by step with a patient's mind.
For many, the first roadblock would be “I don’t have a journalism degree” or “I am not a frequent writer” or “I do write but I suck at numbers”. Well, if any of these is your case, don’t get frustrated and flee away. Because you don’t necessarily need a journalism or analytics background to start.
If you are already equipped with technical skills to obtain and process online data, that’s awesome. However, if you are a new starter dealing with data, you could consider making full use of related tools developed by those brilliant minds on the Internet. This can save you a lot of efforts.
What tools are helpful for data journalists? Most companies use handy data-related tools to facilitate data analysis, for example, data extraction tools like Octoparse, data mining tools like Oracle Data Mining, data visualization tools like Tableau and Power BI, just to name a few.
None of them requires a high level of expertise. That’s why they are created: to save people a large amount of time and energy. Everyone can learn to execute data analysis from scratch.
Should I learn a programming language?
For non-coders: why not try a handy one?
It is often the case that data journalists need a large amount of clean and structured data to analyze and visualize. The data could be texts, image, web page URLs, numbers, or tables. To pull data from different data sources, journalists can take advantage of scraping tools (https://www.octoparse.com/blog/top-30-free-web-scraping-software). Websites are HTML codes in nature, thus to fetch data from them is realizable through a web scraper. What’s more, these tools can convert data into structured formats automatically, such as Excel, JSON, CSV, and more.
More about journalism: schedule your time to build your knowledge base
It is all about self-teaching. If you are not occupied by work and have plenty of time to kill, you can set a daily schedule for your learning. The key is to keep it as your routine. If you get off work at around 6 pm, consider putting aside a slot of time for your study and spend more time when the weekend comes. The key is to keep it as your routine. That’s how incremental improvement works its magic.
There are numerous free/paid online resources for your reference:
1 Visit the official site of The Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC) of The University of Hong Kong to get the latest trend of data journalism
2 Attend online courses on Coursera: this can be a good company throughout your whole journey of journalism. You’ll find data journalism-related courses from top universities like MIT, UMich, and UIUC for training on statistics, data science, data visualization, programming, and so on.
3 Check out edX as another source of online courses in programming, data analysis, and statistics. They are provided in a variety of languages including English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, French, and German.
4 If you are a fan of Google like me, you will find Google News Initiative pretty useful. On this site, they offer free online training materials for journalists, focusing on using Google tools in data journalism.
Courses related to data journalist on edX
Above are just a few options for you to start exploring the world of data journalism. Another thing to keep in mind is that “Practice makes perfect”. Intensive reading and writing are inevitable in your daily practice. You will never become a good data journalist if you can’t become a good journalist in the first place.
Just roll up your sleeves, open a blank word doc or grab a pen and a piece of paper, and let your words flow! My favorite writing handbooks are On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. If you are a new writer, this is a good place to start.
Be in a support system
As you are building your knowledge base and equipping yourself with all the skills, you can reach out to online data journalist’s communities to seek people with the same interest as you. Besides Linkedin, you can consider other great platforms for finding a job and networking with professionals such as Indeed, Mediabistro, and Glassdoor. To become a successful data journalist is not a piece of cake, but it is neither rocket science. As long as you are devoted to it and are passionate to find solutions for the problems you encounter, incremental improvements will take you to the destination.