Uncover The Best Story: Tips For Finding A Narrative In The Data

Reading time: 4 min

The Information Age is all about data… lots and lots and lots of it. It’s everywhere: data about computer use and cell phone calls, family dynamics and customer demographics, weather patterns and diseases. If you want to know how many people got the flu in Minneapolis, or used a credit card in Missouri, or called Hong Kong from Marina del Rey, you can probably find out. Collecting data is easier today than it has ever been. But as the numbers accrue, analyzing them has gotten more and more complicated. Numerical data is so ubiquitous that it’s no longer just the purview of statisticians or analysts. Journalists are increasingly charged with transforming data sets into interesting narratives. But in many cases, it is no longer possible to see that narrative in a raw data file with the naked eye. So journalists need parsing tools to tease out stories, which means they need technical know-how, an eye for detail, and strategies for smart searching. Here are some helpful tips for mining data: techniques and tools that will help you transform a pile of numbers into a story worth telling. Ask Probing Questions All good journalism starts with good questions. Before you start filtering and scanning, start thinking. Chances are you have some idea of what you might find in the data, even if that idea is vague. For example, if you’re looking at a bunch of data about snowfall in Colorado, you may wonder what day saw the most snowfall ever, or the least. You might wonder about the average snowfall on a given day year-to-year, or in a given month. You probably also have some sense of the story you’d like to tell. While it’s important not to try shoehorning data into a pre-conceived narrative, having some feel for what you hope to find will guide your search. As you search, you’ll uncover data that sparks new questions. Follow up on each one, keep careful notes, and be flexible and ready to change your narrative as the story emerges. Learn the Tools of the Trade This can be a tall order, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of experience with data journalism. But some of the most useful tools are relatively easy to use, like Excel. Excel can do a wide range of things. But you don’t have to become an expert to make it work for you. Basic tasks like highlighting minimum/maximum values allow you to quickly scan for specific numbers. You can filter data to exclude results based on defined parameters (useful if, for example, you only want to see rows referring to a particular product or date or time). You can do all sorts of calculations with relatively straightforward formulae (try a Google search for the formula you need – the Internet is full of Excel tutorials). And, if you’re lucky enough to have data in pivot tables, you can check and uncheck options to see relationships in the data in seconds – relationships that would take hours to uncover otherwise. Excel Pivot Tables Familiarizing yourself with visualization tools is helpful too, since these are the tools designers are likely to use to illustrate your narrative. But they’re also useful tools during the story-writing process. They depict the data in a new way, allowing you to see relationships you might otherwise have missed. Google products are free and, like Excel, they are designed for non-coders so they’re accessible without extensive training. For example, you can use Google Spreadsheets to organize data and then Google Fusion Tables to create charts, network graphs, heat maps, and more. Google Fusion Table Heat Map Filter, Reset, and Filter Again In whatever program you use, filtering data is the best way to see relationships. This is how you sort through the haystack stories. Start with your list of questions and think of filters that might answer those questions. Be creative and keep careful notes. This process doesn’t tend to be linear and it’s easy to lose track of leads when you revert to the raw data. Write down your filter parameters alongside interesting results. Then it will be an easy thing to recreate productive searches down the line. Understand Visualization Being familiar with visualization tools is step one. Step two is learning some of the many ways data is visualized, even beyond the capabilities of the tools you’re familiar with. When you understand things like chloropleth maps and coxcomb charts (among many others), you’ll see opportunities for those sorts of visualizations in the data. This will help you refine the story, and work with the designer on telling that story well. Coxcomb Chart Be Ready to Learn Something New Data journalism is a relatively new field. As such, there is a steady stream of new tools available, both free and commercial. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with new programs and platforms. Yes, it may be intimidating at the beginning, but each journalist eventually finds the tools that work best for her, and a familiarity with many different tools makes it much easier to communicate and work with colleagues (like graphic artists and programmers, each of whom probably have their own favorite tools and programs).

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