Why Data Journalism?

By Stephan Lorz, Börsen-Zeitung

Despite newly coined phrases like Journalism 2.0, data journalism is not a creation of the digital era. Everybody, who has ever written either a report on business cycles and fiscal policy, or a comment on any related developments, has always corroborated his statements with data and statistics. Time series have been constructed, analyzed and often visualized for the sake of better understanding. The developments of gross domestic product (GDP) or public debt allow no room for interpretation, although there have been many attempts to hide statistical relationships or to present occasional deviations as a new regularity. Arguments developed on this basis may often appear compelling for a time. At some point, however, everybody has to face the bare figures.

Meanwhile the amount, diversity and depth of the data at our disposal have changed. The rise of data corporations in the web space has shown how to handle big data successfully. Even the development of data-driven business models capable of undermining whole industries has been proven possible. In the digital era everything turns into analyzable data: our orders, our search behavior, our communication, our mobility, business successes and strategies, money flows as well as innovations of all kind.  Moreover, new tools enable the derivation of relationships and reliable statements out of unstructured data collected from different sources in different formats. The results are relevant for new analyses. They can be utilized in the scientific, economic and political context and even serve the legal conservation of evidence.

Apparently, the whole world is turning into a hard disk and browsing through it with the right “explorer” reveals new insights, stories and relationships. For this purpose there is a series of new software tools, which – as unimaginable as they were few years ago – simplify the collection, analysis, processing and visualization of data.

Eventually, journalism moves one step further into line with the scientific approach. Economists, sociologists and psychologists have always – often in the context of individual projects or specific technical issues – used big data to identify regularities, to incorporate them in a model and to use it as a foundation for further research. The border between science and journalism becomes blurred in some respects – insofar the immediate consequence is cooperation, similar to the one in the context of the project “Bail-in-Tracker”.

In light of the cogency of high-quality graphs, produced with data mining programs and tools, data journalists occasionally fall victims to the charm of optical suggestion. Often non-existent causal relationships are ascribed to correlations. Besides, the data quality has to be verified in terms of origin and size/selection. The business/political interest of the data source/data provider should also be critically examined. And since readers/viewers readily let themselves be blinded by the sheer power of processed data and pellucid graphs, great responsibility rests on all actors dealing with the new data toolkit.

Nevertheless, if a right environment and a responsible approach are given, a new field (of work) for journalism and science arises. The relevant toolkit expands so that the revelation of the increasingly complex relationships in our modern world becomes faster and more comprehensive. And since an increasingly large part of the communication, the decision-making process, the private life and the career is mirrored in data bases and can only be accessed through them, a comprehensive and realistic picture of reality can be drawn – a distinguishing feature of good journalism and the foundation of each science.

With regard to finance, which consists almost entirely of bits & bytes and stores all business processes in data bases, data journalism is the natural counterpart in the context of the democratic checks & balances and provides readers/viewers with information indispensable in the private and political decision making.

Frankfurt, May 20th 2016