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Career Prospects in Data Journalism

Journalism remains an important part of society in the United States. It just looks very different.

For the most part, it’s moved online. And thanks to the proliferation of Big Data, journalism has the potential to be more powerful in the digital age. Technology has made information easily available to supplement what journalists have always done – get facts.

In fact, a Google News Lab study found that 42% of journalists use data on a regular basis to verify reporting, to investigate and to explain complex topics.

Of course, it has precedents. Good journalists have always looked for source documentation to back up (or, in some cases, contradict) what a politician or public official says. In the 1980s, many reporters started moving into what was called “computer assisted reporting,” which was exactly what it sounded like, using software to go through data and find interesting trends.

Using the tools and techniques of data collection, analysis and interpretation, data journalists specialize in extracting information from large datasets and publishing a story that sheds light onto some aspect of life.

  • In 2015, the Associated Press used data from commercial flight records to determine that a congressman was getting free airline tickets from a political contributor and then billing the public for them.
  • After public officials in England said poverty was not a cause of riots in the country in 2011, The Guardian got the records of everyone arrested in the riots, and overlapped where they lived with government poverty maps showing areas of deprivation. They found 58% of the rioters came from neighborhoods located in 20% of the most deprived areas of the country.

In some cases, entire sites are dedicated to data journalism. One popular site is FiveThirtyEight.com, which contains hundreds of examples of data used to report on politics, sports, science, economics and culture.

What Data Journalists Do

In many respects, data journalists interpret information, as do data analysts in other fields. On Medium, British journalist Sophie Warnes provided an outline of what data journalists do on projects.

  • Finding data (often scraped from public data available online) and cleaning the data to put it in a state where it is usable and can be analyzed. In some cases, the data is unstructured (such as receipts or documents) and must be entered manually into a database.
  • Analyzing the data to determine if there is a potential news story or if further research is needed. Data journalists look for trends. If it’s crime statistics, has crime increased or decreased dramatically in certain areas? If it’s government spending, where have costs increased or spending trends emerged?
  • Visualizing the data means presenting the information in an easily understood way, such as publishing a visual element along with a written piece. In some cases, visualized data is the primary part of the story, such as in this example from the New York Times.

The median salary for data journalists ranged between $70,001 to $80,000, according to OpenNews’ 2017 News Nerd Survey. The highest pay ($80,001 to $90,000 range) was in the New York and Washington, D.C., metro areas. People working on the Content Management System (CMS), website or other tech platforms for an organization earn between $90,001 and $100,000 annually.

How to Get a Job as a Data Journalist

Because of its unique combination of skill sets, data journalism attracts both those who earn a degree in journalism or communication and those who focus on programs that emphasize analytics.

Successful data journalists possess the following skills:

  • Critical Thinking By the time they get experience in journalism, most reporters develop strong critical thinking skills when it comes to dealing with human sources. That same skepticism and desire to fact-check everything must also be focused on data sources.
  • Data Analysis – This includes working with large datasets and understanding the use of spreadsheets to sort, filter and analyze data. Clearly, strong math skills also benefit data journalists. It’s also good to know how to write code and at least some basic statistical analysis.

There are several career possibilities in the field. Sites such as FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact routinely use data to drive many stories, the latter to fact-check statements by politicians. Larger organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have entire departments focused on data journalism.

Journalists may find opportunities at smaller news outlets. In some cases, journalists with an interest in data take on the responsibility of starting data-driven reporting for an organization. Some small and midsize organizations will bring in consultants to teach traditional reporters how to use data journalism to improve what they do, according to the American Press Institute.

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