Data, industry lessons from NICAR

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A showcase that tells of journalism's mission and the humanity that goes into meaningful reporting. That was my overarching takeway from this year's NICAR Conference, which also afforded me a multitude of new tools to use to carry out such efforts. 

Over the course of three days, I, as well as more than 1,000 other journalists, were provided with countless examples of when good forces come together for the betterment of society, even when met with the harshest of environments.

The conference atmosphere itself was refreshing, especially at a time when reporters often feel the weight of the current news environment — whether it be through newsroom changes or the topics being written about. Attempts have been made to devalue the importance of journalism, but the mission and its impact remain vividly present, I quickly gathered. 

In one instance, I overheard a fellow journalist say that she felt inspired to be in an environment where the positives of our field and its lasting results are told at length. She was absolutely right.

Watching colleagues — or even competitors — in the news industry compliment others on their work was also invigorating. I, too, was inspired by other (certainly more experienced) reporters in my field who had taken a deep dive into their respective stories, demanding accountability from government officials and taking the time to hear the voices of those most afflicted.

But the conference was much more than that. It was a seemingly endless lineup of data visualization and gathering approaches to benefit data journalists — and even those who don't necessarily hold that title, including myself. 

So, what stories were told? There was one in which a reporter, determined to present a more factual death told, developed her own database to explain life in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. It was a lesson in the importance of being an integral part of the community. In doing so, she was able to bypass the vague figures given by government officials that grossly underrepresented the toll. 

Another session explained pre- and post-storm coverage related to Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Matt Dempsey of the Houston Chronicle outlined the methods in which the newspaper poured over data, predicting that flooding and other effects were likely.

Then there was the abundance of often overlooked tools to aid in such reporting efforts.

Among them was Tableau, a data visualization program of particular interest to me. The company's Public tool is available for free to journalists, and provides a user-friendly interface for those to view  when embedded in stories or packages. 

I should note that the user-friendly element didn't exactly translate as easily on the development side. But, I feel I have the hang of it. More on Tableau Public, including examples of its newsroom use, can be found here.

Another element of potential growth for myself and the Democrat-Gazette comes in the form of podcasting — often a listening pastime for journalists. (Disclaimer: I can't count myself in that category. At least not yet.)

Among the examples of compelling podcasts was a six-part series from NPR affililiate Southern California Public Radio. The investigative story, as told during the conference, told of one officer involved in the shooting of four criminals. Its narrative was developed using an in-house database and analysis of the more than 35 shots fired.

General lessons learned: Think long and hard about the narrative, and don't hesitate to make changes along the way until a single episode or series is told in its most complete form.

In terms of online mapping, I've searched for a tool that allowed for more customization. The Los Angeles Times Map Maker, presented by a former Arkansan who now works for the newspaper, offers a solution to that visualization gap. 

It's far to intricate to explain in a blog post, but an example of how it works can be found here. Essentially, the more you know how to code, the more you can make it your own. 

A few more meaningful links gleaned from this year's conference:

  • Guide to bulletproofing data via ProPublica (including tracking changes to files in a log, having a "data dictionary," not assuming that data is always telling the truth)
  • 30 tools to aid in data visualization via Jeremy Caplan of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (@jeremycaplan on Twitter)
    • A few personal favorites: Anchor, podcasting; SoundCite, audio embed for stories; Legend, kinetic typography; Wakelet, social scrapbooking; Instapaper; social links; and Thing Link, image hotspots.
  • Examples of local news innovation via reporters across the U.S., internationally