Jul 22 2008
My friend Dave Gulliver had a fascinating piece in his paper on Sunday about the birth of quadruplets in a Sarasota hospital. It’s a great story, but what makes it greater is that it was written by somebody with a certain amount of expertise on the subject of difficult premature multiple births. I hope Dave doesn’t mind, but I’d like to use that story as an example of why understanding the use of data is increasingly important for large swaths of journalism.
There’s a tendency among some folks in the industry to see CAR and other technological tools as just that - blunt instruments. Helpful, sure, but not ultimately necessary to the task of creating journalism. And for a segment of what journalism does, that’s probably ok. When we report on people and institutions that aren’t using technology to guide their decisions or actions, then an understanding of how data is used or certain technologies isn’t a necessity.
I suppose a music critic needn’t understand much about databases, for example, but reporters covering government, business, college or professional sports, to name a few, should be able to assess their subjects the way that people inside those sectors do. And increasingly, that means understanding the use of data. Many local governments base their police staffing - who covers where - on a non-stop flow of crime data. Sports teams pour over tape, logging their opponents’ tendencies in preparation for upcoming games. Businesses are all about the numbers, too.
And then there’s politics. Winning elections these days is very often about putting together enough voters to crack 50%. There’s microtargeting based on consumer data and door-to-door canvassing so that volunteers can input demographic data into centralized servers. They’re not doing that just for fun - it’s valuable information. But if journalists can’t really grasp how organizations are using data, we’re liable to miss the effects, and thus miss some fuller explanations of events. Yes, we can rely on people to tell us what’s happening - and we should - but if data plays a big part in the life of an organization, the reporter covering it should have some basis to evaluate that role.
So how does that relate to Dave’s story about the quads? Well, after reading it, I noticed that there were some subtle bits of detail that I never would have thought to include or been able to describe as well - about how the NICU operates, the details of the births. That’s because Dave has been there with his twin boys. A parent of a child born without complications or a single person would have been hard-pressed to write as good a story. I sure wouldn’t have been able to do so.
It’s the same idea when it comes to understanding the basis for decisions that come from, at least in part, the collection and consumption of data. It’s can mean the difference between telling a story and telling a better story. I’m sure plenty of organizations that we cover would be happy to have reporters who are in the dark about these things. But that doesn’t help our readers any.
So, technology and data as a tool? Yes. But when the tools become a crucial part of the world we cover, understanding how they work and being able to use them makes us better journalists.