How to make it in data journalism – an Interhacktive guide

Tips and experience from data journalists on how to get started in the industry

Graphs and data journalism

You’re a budding data journalist and you’ve got your head around the basics – you’ve played around with Microsoft Excel, you’ve made a few charts here and there, and the thought of statistics doesn’t give you nightmares anymore. But looking for some guidance on what to do next?

Well, you’re in the right place. With useful advice from some of the Interhacktives alumni, here’s our guide on how to get started in data journalism.

Let your curiosity guide you

There’s data available on just about everything. “Apply data to your personal interests,” says ex-Interhacktive Peter Yeung. “Context is of the utmost importance. Why is there a pattern? How does this compare to historical trends? Do experts agree? Is the data robust? Does it provide the whole picture or is it limited in some way? Who is providing it – a group with an interest?”

Finding the data isn’t as difficult as you think. More data than you can imagine is available online. You can look for UK national data on the ONS website, global health data on the WHO website, and other public data on the websites of different public departments (like the Police).

If the data isn’t explicitly available in a data set, you can scrape it from a website! Find out how to scrape data using R here.

Face your fear of numbers

“Don’t be scared of numbers,” former Interhacktive Debora Aru advises. You might have gone into journalism hoping to never see numbers again. Not all hope is lost. “It’s true that data journalism is based on numbers, but it doesn’t mean you need to be a nerd to work with them.”

Peter says: “Don’t get bogged down in the numbers, focus on why the work is important and who it will affect.” While dealing with statistics might sound intimidating, take comfort in knowing that the computer will do most of the work for you! Once your data is cleaned, you just need to know where to put your numbers.

Explore different tools and programmes

So many different tools and programmes are available (many of them free) to make data journalism just that much more fun. With the amount of options out there, you’re bound to find at least one you’re comfortable using.

Debora says: “I suggest starting with learning a programming language like Python or R Studio as soon as possible because it’s really helpful when you need to analyse huge dataset quick.” When it comes to data analysis and/or visualization, other available options include Excel, SPSS, Tablaeu, Carto, Datawrapper, Flourish, and many more. Click for tutorials on Excel and Carto.

If these seem too out of your comfort zone, Niamh McIntyre, another Interhacktives alumna, has some reassuring words. “You don’t have to be (and never will be) a data scientist – learning to code is a great add-on skill, but in all honesty a high proficiency in Excel will get you a long way.”

You may also want to explore different apps to ease your transition into data journalism. These include apps for note-taking, social media, and staying up-to-date on the news in the field.

Networking and events

Now that you’re familiar with the tools of the trade, get to know the people in the field. The best ways to do this is to follow them on Twitter and attend events like Hacks/Hackers. We have compiled a list of unmissable events to attend in the next few months – make sure to check them out!

Final words by those who made it

“Data journalism is a great niche to get into, because there are hundreds of journalists who can write great copy, but hardly any who can work with data effectively. As a data journalist, a large part of your job will involve Freedom of Information stories, so get to know your way around the FOI Act well, and how to deal with being fobbed off by FOI officers – one mistake in a request could mean adding another month to your the timescale of your project.” – Niamh McIntyre (@niamh_mcintyre): Interhacktives 2016-2017 – now a data journalist at Press Association.

“Always review your working out. Never manipulate the numbers to fit your narrative. Beware of confirmation bias. Have fun and don’t be too serious about it. Make your work as lucid and easily understandable to as many people as possible.” – Peter Yeung (@ptr_yeung) Interhacktives 2015-2016 – now an interactive journalist at The Times.

“Never forget to have a nose for stories. Data can tell amazing stories but if you can’t spot them, it can be quite useless and boring. So, when you’re approaching a dataset always ask yourself: “If I see this story on a newspaper, would I ever be interested in it?” If the answer is “Uhm not really”, probably not even readers will be interested in your story.” – Debora Aru (@Deb_Aru): Interhacktives 2015-2016 – now a data journalist at Trinity Mirror Data Unit.

Got any more tips for data journalism newbies? Let us know in the comments below!

Leave a Reply