Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two months, you know that the talk of the town has been QAC250: “An Introduction to Data Journalism.” Taught by journalist Stephen Busemeyer of the Hartford Courant, the class has proved to be a huge hit despite tricky class hours (7:10 – 10:00PM.) The relatively nascent field of data journalism has caught quite a buzz, and websites like FiveThirtyEight and Quartz have helped to boost the field’s popularity. With institutions like Columbia University beginning to offer dedicated (and very expensive) data journalist degrees, the field seems poised to stay. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Busemeyer–an individual who has been deeply immersed in the field’s changing landscape–to ask him about his experiences working with data as a professional journalist.
KM: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do? For starters, do you see yourself as a “data journalist“?
SB: Well, I think it’s hard to split journalism up into big, different categories. We’re all story tellers. We find things out, we write them down. At the moment, my job is of one of the larger classes. You have news journalism, and you’ve got opinion journalism. A couple of years ago, I moved over from news journalism to opinion–and now I’m on the editorial board for the [Hartford] Courant.
KM: As a journalist, what would you say your relationship to data is?
SB: Complicated…like any relationship, right? There are a lot of different approaches to data journalism. Some data journalists came up in life as coders. The computer scientists. I did not. I came up as a journalist–as a writer–and I’ve had a twenty year career as an editor. That was until somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, could you do the data journalism thing for a while?”
Most people come into journalism thinking that there’s no math. Well I kind of like math, because I feel at home in that sort of data analysis world. I was one of the few people in the newsroom who became very comfortable using Excel and other similar database systems. So, I just got better and better, and as time went on, I was asked to do a weekly column on some sort of Connecticut statistic–that I did for three years. Then, they decided they wanted me to do the data journalism job. So, keeping in mind that I’m not a very proficient coder–I’m not a data scientist–I’m a journalist. I am a story teller. Data journalism, for me, is kind of data lite. I’m not doing really sophisticated data analysis. I’m not doing lots of regressions. I’m not doing lots of t-tests. But I’m pretty handy at some of the basic software out there, and I think I know what makes for an impactful data visualization.
KM: While we’re on the topic of data visualization, what do you think the future holds for a “niche” field like data journalism/data viz?
SB: I think it’s only getting better and better. As for whether it’ll become its own field, I don’t know. I don’t really know if you can separate data journalism/data visualization from data.
That being said, now that there are all kinds of data tools out there, there is a glut of crappy data journalism, and I have contributed to that glut…
KM: Could you talk a little bit about the ethics of being a journalist? How does the idea of journalistic integrity come into play when you’re working with data?
SB: As a journalist you serve no master (except the reader, and the truth.) I think that’s what integrity means. If you find your principles being compromised, or your writing being compromised/slanted/influenced/nudged, then integrity comes into question.
Be whole, be reliable, and be objective. Don’t flinch from the truth. Data doesn’t flinch from the truth. Journalists shouldn’t either.
KM: Finally, what do you want your students to take away from Intro to Data Journalism?
SB: I want them to be able to better understand how to extract stories from data. How can we get good stories from data? What is a story? How do we sift through the data and look at it?
What I love about this class is that there are people from a very wide range of backgrounds. Everybody brings something different, and what has impressed me is how well everybody has been working together.
While “An Introduction to Data Journalism” won’t be offered in the spring of 2018, I’d highly suggest keeping an eye out for it in the coming semesters. In the meantime, you can read more about Stephen Busemeyer’s career and his recent articles here.