Database journalism – a different definition of “news” and “reader”
Politifact is an innovative journalism project built by Matt Waite, as a project of the St. Petersburg Times, inspired by Adrian Holovaty’s 2006 manifesto on “database journalism”. Waite and Holovaty both focus on the “shape” of the information presented by database journalism – stories that have a consistent set of data elements that can be gathered, presented, sliced, and re-used. This structure is foreign to traditional journalism which thinks of its form as the story, with title, date, byline, lede, body.
The Politifact site started by fact-checking politicians’ statements during the 2008 political campaign. Each statement is rated as on a one to five scale, from “True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, or False. Today, the most compelling piece on the site is the “Obamameter” tracking the performance of the president against over 500 campaign promises. Examples include: No. 513: Reverse restrictions on stem cell research – Promise Kept, No. 464: Reduce energy consumption in federal buildings – In the Works, and No. 446: Enact windfall profits tax for oil companies – Stalled.
The shape of the data is part of the picture. It’s certainly the biggest day-to-day difference if you’re composing news or tools for news. But I don’t think it’s the lede. What’s different here is a a different conception of what’s “new” and what a “reader” does.
What’s new Traditional journalism is based on a “man bites dog” algorithm. What’s newsworthy is the dramatic reversal of expectations. Slow, gradual changes are not newsworthy. Large static patterns are not newsworthy. I suspect that this is part genre and part technology. The technology limitation is space; there isn’t room to publish many stats in a newsprint paper, and minimal affordances for navigation.
The emphasis on concise and dramatic “news” leaves our society vulnerable to “frogboiling”, the urban legend in which the frog in gradually heated water gets accustomed to the change, doesn’t jump out, and boils to death. The decline of the North Atlantic cod fishery or the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta are not newsworthy until the cod and the salmon are gone. Wage stagnation isn’t newsworthy until the middle class is gone. Tens of thousands dead on US highways each year isn’t newsworthy, though a traffic jam caused by a fatal accident is news. Many eyes hunting through financial data may find dramatic scandals, to be sure. With database journalism, perilous or hopeful trends and conditions can become worthy of storytelling and comment.
What a reader does The rise of the internet has made reader participation a much greater part of news than the limited “letter to the editor” section. Dan Gillmor, former editor of the “ur-blog” Good Morning Silicon Valley liked to say “my readers are smarter than me” because of the high-quality corrections and tips he’d get from his readers. Database journalism takes the trend a few steps further. Where a traditional news reader consumes the news, a database user interacts with it, looking for information and patterns. The “news” itself may be found by readers doing queries and analysis of the database, such as the database of Prop 8 contributions published by the San Francisco Chronicle.
So database journalism isn’t just about having some fields that are different from “title” and “body”. It’s about different conceptions of time, space, and participation.