Data Journalism

My journalism professor assigned this project involving data journalism. Along with a few of my peers who share my interest in science, I wrote some case studies on different publications and how they utilized data in their science articles.

Mack Veltman, Ryan Eberle, Hannah Morrow, Tyler Smith, Natalie Waitt-Gibson.

Introduction

Over the past few decades, science has boasted impressive innovations, from breakthroughs in genetic modification to the discoveries of “superfoods” that allegedly boost immunity or reduce the risk of disease. Today, news audiences seek constant and instant information, leading to extreme pressure on scientists to report their findings, which are often misrepresented in the media. The ability to accurately cite scientific findings and sources is crucial to building trust and contributing to an informed public. Without the use of statistics and reliable sources, science reporting loses validity and simply becomes an opinion piece to be regurgitated by news source after news source until the study’s true meaning is lost.

Fox News: VeganismScreen Shot 2017-05-29 at 12.38.40 PM

Recently, the vegan diet has been the center of social discussions regarding animal husbandry and environmental impact. According to Vegan Demographics, over one million people in the United States are currently vegan. Critics question the legitimacy of the diet and its health impacts, while supporters argue that the diet is environmentally friendly and encourages sustainability.

In an article from Aug. 11, 2016, Fox News Health argued that the vegan diet is not environmentally friendly. Their pathos-targeted story fell short, however, when they decided to craft a scientific story with an editorial backbone. The author cited a research study conducted by Elementa which explored the impact of different diets on agriculture and land cultivation. Contrary to what a data story should entail, the article contained no statistics, and the link the author provided didn’t lead to the actual study, but to a blog website called “Quartz Media.” In failing to adequately cover a topic that could lend itself as an ideal data-based piece, Fox News has contributed to a decline of trust in evidence-based journalism.

FiveThirtyEight: ‘The Rock’ Diet

In stark contrast to the conservative media conglomerate Fox News, the data-heavy publication FiveThirtyEight aims to inform almost strictly through numbers. The website, owned by ESPN and led by statistician Nate Silver, is known for its analytical concentration on sports and politics. Its tendency to investigate and study trends in different areas, such as health, is effective in relaying numerical information to a broad audience. An intriguing example of FiveThirtyEight’s adept reporting style is best captured in its 2015 piece on the diet of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

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The story breaks down Johnson’s diet and presents the information in a way that is easily digested by any audience. In one paragraph, the article hyperlinks to four different sources providing information on average caloric intake, price of food, and pounds of cod consumed.

Beyond the basics of citing sources, FiveThirtyEight sets itself apart from text-heavy publications with clean and easy-to-understand visuals and infographics to complement its data. As seen in the chart to the right, the numbers are easy to interpret because of the familiar and simple layout; the author, Walt Hickey, lets the data do the talking.

The Guardian: Raw Milk: A Superfood or Super Risky?

The Guardian is another publication that actively covers science and health. Almost all of their pieces allude to a data sets that serve as the foundation of the stories. While some of their articles exude more liberal ideals, The Guardian’s health and science stories are nonetheless superb examples of prioritizing data to aid the storytelling process.

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In a recently published article titled “Raw Milk: A Superfood or Super Risky?” author Charlotte Simmonds writes about the potential health benefits and dangers of drinking raw, unpasteurized milk – which almost five percent of people in the United States now consume. While she doesn’t bring in the eye-candy infographics and tables that FiveThirtyEight does, Simmonds still does a thorough job of letting the data and sources have their presence known. The debate over drinking raw milk is ongoing, but The Guardian makes it clear that their data-based writing won’t go sour anytime soon.

Conclusion

infographics

In the infographic above, the American Council on Science and Health and Real Clear Science joined forces to show trustworthiness across three measurements: the implementation of science journalism, the amount of evidence they provide in their stories, and how compelled the readers are by the stories. You can find the infographic here :http://www.acsh.org/news/2017/03/05/infographic-best-and-worst-science-news-sites-10948

Utilizing digestible, comprehensive, and interactive data to complement a story is crucial to the success and validity of accurate scientific reporting. Without clear evidence, science journalism loses its credibility and becomes little more than a sensationalized opinion piece stripped of any true value. And, in today’s world, hard data may be the last sliver of journalism that all audiences can believe in.

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