Journalism and data

How wonderful it would be if journalists published links to data, Jon Udell commented in his IT Conversation with David Stephenson. For example, NYT journalists make wonderful infographics and it would be great to share links to the source. We are so far away from that vision!
Several conventions of journalism work against this model.
Quick tasty bites The infographics in NYT and other mainstream media are at best intended to rapidly convey the sense of a story to an intelligent but busy person. At worst, graphics are what Tufte calls “chartjunk” – visuals designed to look attractive and dramatic while muddling the underlying information, reflecting condescension to the audience and perhaps lack of understanding on the part of the designer. Whether the graphics good or bad, the model is to be able to digest information quickly. If the viewer has to think, the designer is doing their job wrong.
What’s new? News is about what’s new by self-definition. If there isn’t a news hook there isn’t a story. Publishing data, and accumulating growing understanding and utility around data may be informative, but it isn’t “news”. Maybe it’s science, but that’s done by a handful of people and only makes the news when there is some sort of revelation or discovery for “the public” to consume.
Journalists quote experts The news model assumes that the gathering and analysis of data is done by expert researchers. The role of the journalist is to represent the newsworthy findings, and then to interview experts with contrasting opinions about the findings.
In order for journalists to publish explorable data, all of these assumptions need to change.
Wiki model of journalismThink of news as recent changes in a wiki. Instead of a stream of novel and quickly forgotten news bites, a wiki sees information as changes in an underlying database. “News” happens when new information is added, or when new connections are made in existing information. The “news” isn’t disconnected from the existing body of knowledge.
A continuum of expertiseIf the data sources behind the news were public, the experts compiling the data would be able to explain some of the import themselves, journalists would curate, and passionate amateurs would be able to contribute at various levels. More people still consume than produce any given thing, but the population of creators and explainers at the top of the pyramid is expanded and diversified.
Dramatic moments and underlying trends The most artful data models would reward both quick grasping of salient information and slower exploration. This is possible but really really hard. The best in human intellectual and artistic achievement attains this quality. Perhaps the surplus that Clay Shirky envisions — the thousands of wikipedias that would be possible if people used more of their time adding and less time consuming.
The good news is that we have the tools, and collectively the time, to start building these resources today. The model will change by people doing and explaining.

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