On the need for data journalism

In July I came up with a crackpot plan—to publish a blog post every Monday. But then I undertook a somewhat difficult task in the form of a 5 week MOOC called Intro to R For Journalists: How to find great stories in data, run by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs are a great way to learn because they are (often) free and have brilliant teachers. R is a computer programming language widely used by statisticians that has become a favourite among journalists for producing stories with data.

Intro to R For Journalists is taught by Andrew Ba Tran, data reporter on the rapid-response investigative team at The Washington Post—a fantastic teacher who manages to make difficult things clear. It took me 8 weeks to complete the course.*

During the teaching period for R For Journalists, Deaths Inside: Indigenous Australian deaths in custody, an important piece of data journalism was published by The Guardian in Australia. ‘This database tracks every known Indigenous death in custody in Australia from 2008 to 2018.’ The project is a searchable database that you can use to read the background story of each person’s death in custody. I urge anyone who hasn’t visited the project yet to have a look. I found ‘Deaths Inside’ upsetting to read because the data clearly shows that ‘failure to provide medical care’ and ‘use of force’ are common causes of death for Indigenous Australians in custody.

I first heard about data journalism in 2014 when I completed a Doing Journalism With Data MOOC run by the European Journalism Centre. That was when I first saw Out of Sight, Out of Mind—a data journalism project dealing with US drone strikes in Pakistan, that remains one of the best examples of data journalism today. For further examples, have a look at the 2018 Data Journalism Awards shortlist.

Back in 2014, whilst studying the Doing Journalism With Data MOOC, I had the good fortune of being able to go into The Age offices in Melbourne to meet up with other people taking the MOOC, one of whom was Marc Moncrief, who once won a journalism award for his reportage of the Pine Gap protests. I think data journalist Liam Mannix was there too. I love that about MOOCs–that you can end up with direct access to the best brains in the field. Intro to R For Journalists was no different. At times I would write a question on the course Facebook page and Andrew Ba Tran would answer it.

Although it is out of my comfort zone, I will push myself to keep learning code. Because I hope to understand some things about this class-blind, asylum-seeker-murdering, Murdoch-owned, energy-guzzling nation of ours.

* Technically, I haven’t completed R For Journalists because during the final module I couldn’t get my github repo to work and briefly considered dropping my laptop into my fishtank and calling it a day.


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