Intro: How to get started with data journalism visualization, without coding

Written on September 25, 2018

This is the first in a series of posts covering the basics of what I’ve learned, with tools that require little – if any – any coding.

My career took a turn about six years ago, when I started studying data journalism. I’ve been learning on the job since.

As I’ve gotten better at data reporting, I’ve gotten more comfortable addressing this key question: “Are there data that might tell part of this story?”

The goal is for that question to occur naturally. That’s hard. It takes time, because data is a somewhat difficult journalistic source, at first. It will confuse you, mislead you and be very stubborn.

But doesn’t that sound familiar? The whole job is cutting through what’s confusing, misleading or stubborn to get at information.

And good data reporting can help you cut through some of the rest of it.

Data offers a different perspective. It can help put stories in a broader context. It can also serve as a check on narratives peddled by politicians or others.

In that way, it doesn’t stand apart from “traditional” reporting. Unless your source is really special, you don’t want a one-source story.

When you’re starting, think about this simply. If you have a story about a new business opening in your area, you can use data to help tell you whether that industry’s on the rise or decline in your area. Is the opening countering or moving along with a recent trend? Or neither?

Make sure to ask this of other sources along the way, too. Just as you’d ask a politician how they know something they assert, try asking sources whether there’s data that illustrate their point.

Asking those types of questions will change your research and, eventually, your reporting.

It’s just that, with data, the skillset is a little different. My point in much of this series is that the skillset doesn’t need to include programming or coding. It can be drag and drop.

Before getting into tips and tools, it’s most important to consider how data can figure into a story, or what kind of data should itself be a regular story on your beat. Think about:

  • What is your central question?
  • Is there a batch of data that could help answer it?
  • How is that data able to answer that question?

Data journalism can be a strange forest. It’s easy to get lost, and these questions are like trip planning. And wandering around aimlessly with data, which is fairly easy to do, is a surefire way to get turned off from making it a regular resource in your reporting.

The more time you burn not getting anywhere, the less likely you’ll be to keep turning to data as a source, just as a reporter would do with any other source.

So, before we get into specific software and practice building simple data visualizations for news, I’ll go over invaluable data sources with which you should be familiar.

Those sources will help better understand the kinds of questions that data can help answer about your community, economy, politics and more.