26 Sep 2015

The challenge for the data journalist in the newsroom

After spending the last few months as a data journalist at a national newspaper in the UK, I’ve had time to reflect on what the role means in today’s journalism industry.

The role comes with immense opportunity, exciting for a journalist who seeks to uncover new stories, find patterns in statistics and inform people of important information.

But the role also has its challenges, as does any job.

The main challenge is one that depends with whom you work

Namely, it’s resisting the trap of becoming a service for others in the newsroom: a graphics department, or a data cruncher, for other reporters.

The Telegraph's digital transformation has led to a restructuring of the newsroom and investment in data, social and search teams (Photo: David Sim, Flickr)

This isn’t what a data journalist should be doing, but it’s what’s asked of many in the industry.

I was warned about this before starting the job - told to ignore requests to "knock up a quick chart" and warned against becoming a service for others unable or unwilling to analyse data.

So what's the solution?

Of course, I'm not advocating jealously guarding knowledge from others, nor am I saying that you shouldn't help your colleagues.

The opposite - you should help and teach whoever is interested, to allow them to also liberate data and reap the rewards in their own stories.

However, I have learnt that you must draw a line in how you help people in your team. It doesn't help either you or others if you spend all your time creating a chart or map for anyone who asks.

Instead: tell them the tools; show them how to use it. Then you can be a data journalist within a collaborative team.

Ultimately you're there to do journalism. That means finding and producing stories. You can only do that when you're not continually producing visualisations for others' stories.

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