Before you start your story, you must have a solid idea about your topic, theme, subject, and angle. To achieve this, you should look for available sources and use them properly and carefully.
Using a graph created by Paul Bradshaw of OnlineJournalismBlog.com, Jeff South, associate professor and director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, outlined the steps needed to effectively communicate using data journalism.
“The first step is to find the data, of course,” South said. “Maybe that’s finding it online, maybe it’s in a PDF and you need to pull the data out of it. Wherever it is, you need to compile it.”
“A lot of times, data is very dirty, meaning names are not consistent,” South said. “If I was in the database, it might be ‘South, Jeff.’ Another entry might be ‘South, Jeffrey.’ Another entry might be ‘South, J.C.’ Data can be very dirty and we need to clean it up before we can use it.”
Once you have compiled your data and cleaned it up, you need to understand it. This means asking questions like: Who gathered it? When was it compiled? What methodology was used?
Once you understand the data, then you can accurately use it for a story.
Journalists often use more than one set of data to get information for a story. South used the example of taking a list of all the bus drivers in a city and also taking a separate list of everyone in that city who has been convicted of drunk driving. By combining those two lists, you may find that a high percentage of bus drivers have been convicted of drunk driving, which would be a good story.
However, he also cautioned that keeping the data in context is extremely important during this step. “Correlation does not equal causation,” he said. It’s important to be aware of outside factors that could affect the data.
In addition to the four steps outlined in Bradshaw’s graphic, South included a fifth one: visualize.
“Data visualization can be really important in terms of communicating what we’re doing to the public,” he said.
In addition, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself before sitting down to write your story:
- In one sentence, what is the theme of your story? Why did you choose this angle?
- Who are your sources? Why did you select them? Why should the reader care about them?
- In one paragraph (or less), what is your story about? (What is the story’s nut graf?)
- Step outside of reporter role. What questions would your audience have about the topic? Will you answer them in the story?
- Does the story flow? Will you present the information logically?
- Would you want to read this story if you hadn’t written it?