Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

The Future of Data Journalism

ON SATURDAY, October 25, Joshua gave a short talk on the future of data journalism at the 2013 Digital Media Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s the transcript:

My name is Joshua Eaton. I’m a data and print journalist. I cover Tibet, religion and politics, international human rights, and social movements.

Most recently, I’ve been working on an interactive timeline of the Edward Snowden leaks for Al Jazeera America’s website. It has a slide for every new revelation. Each slide has a brief summary of the revelation along with links to all the news stories and documents that broke it.

So far, the Snowden files have produced almost 70 distinct revelations spread out across maybe 100 news articles at over 12 different outlets in 5 different languages. Previously unpublished details about a single revelation or program are often spread over multiple articles, sometimes even at different news outlets or in different languages. Add all the articles about government reactions and commentary and everything else, and this story becomes impossible to follow.

I created this outline because I wanted to see everything we know so far all together in one place, and I wanted others to be able to see that too.

There are at two important tasks for data journalism. The first is helping our readers find the signal amid the noise. Organizing, cataloging, cross-referencing, mining, and visualizing data are important parts of that. They will only become more important as we continue to get more and more information scattered over more and more sources—especially now that we’ve reached the age of massive document leaks.

But there’s a second task, and it’s much more latent than the first. Journalists often get caught up in the news cycle—in events, in breaking news, in whatever topic is of the moment. But that means we often miss the forest for the trees.

Digital humanities allows historians to talk about history in the longue durée, which means looking at trends that occur across continents rather than nations and over centuries rather than decades. I hope data journalism will allow journalists to look at trends that occur over decades rather than news cycles and across continents rather than readership demographics.

Take the topic of land grabs. Right now, a journalist in London reports on skyrocketing rents, a journalist in Florida reports on the foreclosure crisis, a journalist in Nairobi reports on foreign agricultural investments, and a journalist in Bahrain reports on corrupt land deals. But none of them are talking about why protests keep popping up all over the world in places where people are getting priced out. What if they all reported on their particular, day-to-day contexts while also contributing to a data journalism project that tracked land grabs as a global trend then drew on journalists, scholars, and activists to provided analysis and context? This is just a back-of-the-napkin example of what longue durée journalism could look like.

We have two pressing tasks ahead of us: Finding the signals amid the noise and finding the forests amid the trees. Data journalism can help us do both, but neither is inevitable.

1 Comment

  1. Sociologists have often noted the difficulty in attempting to collect relevant data to reveal the operations of the incredibly wealthy. That difficulty comes from a pathological secretiveness on the part of these powerful people in order to ensure that projects and programs that they plan to impose on the population are not able to be deterred. Data journalism projects can be an assist to the population and so proponents must be aware that there is or will be a concerted effort to derail and/or co-opt these endeavours. Just a thought.

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