Tip sheet: Writing stories based on data

By Mirkolorenz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Mirkolorenz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
In getting ready for a new semester, I came across this tip sheet from a computer-assisted reporting class I taught a decade ago. Hivemind, what would you add or change to make it relevant to today’s media landscape? One thing I would add would be some tips on automating data collection.

Writing stories based on data: things to remember

1. It’s about the story, not the numbers. The data are just a means of illustrating a point. Make it clear why your data matters.
2. Corollary #1: find your focus and stick to it. It’s likely that during your reporting, you will come across a lot of interesting information that doesn’t fit your story. Lose it. As Faulkner is reported to have said, in writing, “you must kill all of your darlings.”
3. When comparing statistics, make sure the comparisons are valid. This is a problem that often occurs when looking at data over time. For example, some years, the government changed the way it counted unemployment statistics. A longitudinal comparison of unemployment rates would need to take that into account. Another example that we discussed in class concerned the way various states defined “sex crimes” for reporting purposes under Megan’s Law. SAT scores are another well-known example.
4. Corollary to #3: if you are comparing two sets of similar data, make note of differences in sampling methods, error margins or other differences that might reduce the validity of the comparison.
5. Place examples in context – but make sure it’s the right context. For example, let’s say I report that Osama bin Laden’s family has given millions of dollars to Harvard University. (This is true.) I would convey the wrong impression if I didn’t also point out that Osama bin Laden was estranged from his family, which denounced his terrorist activities. In addition, Osama’s brother is a Harvard graduate, which explains part of the relationship between the family and the university.
6. Make sure your data and analyses come from authoritative sources. If an individual who works for an organization makes an assertion about an organization’s history or policies, get written documentation or verification where possible. The employee might be repeating something he or she has heard, and it may or may not be accurate.
7. Corollary: The same thing is true for people who work in highly-specialized fields such as health care or law. When I worked in oncology, one of my jobs was to edit a publication that would provide allied health professionals with accurate, research-based information about cancer, because we were constantly getting calls from people who called us about information they had been given by a nurse or other medical professional that turned out to be inaccurate.

Baltimore Sun editor forecasts era of newspapers without copy editors

Baltimore Sun editor John E. McIntyre opined on parent company Gannett’s latest reorganization, concluding that one goal “appears to be the elimination of Gannett’s remaining copyeditors,” and offering advice both to the reporters who will be responsible for vetting their own work, and the news consumers who will need to be even more gimlet-eyed when scanning the headlines. One wonders whether Gannett will also try to make reporters responsible for any potential legal consquences stemming from what they publish as well, since newspaper copy editors also function as fact-checkers. Or perhaps someone at Narrative Science is working on a robotic copy editor. Either way, it’s just another way in which the functional division between bloggers and reporters is crumbling.

If I’m right, Gannett staffers might find some value in the guide to legal resources for online publishers that I penned for the Online Journalism Review a few years ago.