When people talk about journalists or reporters, the image of a man or woman eagerly talking to people with a notepad and pen in hand likely comes to mind. It’s a look that has permeated much of pop culture, but it should probably come as little surprise that the modern day journalist is much different. While they still may interview people on the street or sit down to talk with them, today’s journalist is turning to numbers, spreadsheets, and computer programs more often when finding and crafting their stories. Just as it has in many other industries, big data is changing journalism and the way reporters work. For those journalists that embrace it, they’ll soon see how effective using data can be when writing their reports.
Many journalists may balk at the idea of basing their stories around boring figures and statistics. While numbers can certainly help support a story, journalists have been told from the beginning to make stories personal by finding the human element and making it relatable to the average audience member. Why should they dive into the big data pool and surround themselves with numbers? The fact is, big data holds the key to finding good stories, and right now there is more data than ever before. Businesses, organizations, government institutions, and private citizens online are now producing a vast amount of data every day. Some of that data, particularly those from governments, is a matter of public record and available to reporters that choose to utilize it. To the untrained eye, big data is difficult to parse and nearly indecipherable. But for those journalists willing to put forth the effort to become data specialists and adopt what is being called data journalism, they quickly find that big data offers reporters new ways to tell stories.
While big data may help journalists catch stories they might otherwise miss, there are a number of challenges reporters have to overcome to make the most of it. The first is of the technical variety. Most journalists only have the most basic skills when analyzing big data, let alone effectively using it. Reporters need to develop skills involving data visualization or even data scraping. Knowing where and how to access important databases is crucial to collecting pertinent information. Another big challenge is political in nature. It deals with the issue of freedom of information and whether certain data is public or not. Contention over public information access won’t be a new area of debate for reporters, but big data opens up a new arena that will likely be fought over for many years to come. A third challenge deals with the ethical nature of using big data. While using some data may create tantalizing new stories to pursue, journalists need to weigh the public interest over privacy concerns of individuals and businesses.
Big data can also be used for digital journalism. Many news agencies now operate their own websites, so it’s easy to see how big data can help in the creation of effective content. Using big data, journalists should be able to find out more about their audience, like what motivates them, what they like to read, what subjects are of interest, etc. By predicting audience behavior and acting on trends, reporters can tailor their articles to match those interests. Big data based off of the audience may also help point journalists in the right direction when looking for stories. That doesn’t mean all stories should bend to the audience’s will, but using big data analytics as a reporting aid can be a valuable tool in the smart journalist’s hands.
Many major news organizations have realized the potential of big data to transform journalism and have reacted accordingly. The UK Guardian has an entire section on their website focused on big data, which includes a blog and a searchable database with information on all kinds of topics. The New York Times has a blog of their own, and while it might not specifically be dedicated to big data, it does deal heavily with data-related news items. The LA Times also has a Data Desk blog featuring stories with visual elements that have been crafted from big data. All of this data collection is possible with advances in storage technology, like flash array storage. With these major agencies leading the way, it won’t be long before smaller institutions follow suit.
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The transition to data-driven journalism will likely take time. Reporters will need to acquire the necessary skills to be effective in adding big data elements to their stories. Research techniques will need to be learned, and organizational changes will likely need to be adopted. Once news companies understand how important big data is, we’ll see that major change happen across the entire news spectrum.