How to get started with data journalism visualization, without coding

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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 four 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 almost always ask, “is there data that might tell part of this story?”

In this series, I want to share much of what I’ve learned, with years of hindsight about what’s most useful.

Before getting into tips and tools, it’s important to think about how data will figure into your work. What do you hope to learn from it? What question are you seeking to answer? What kind of data might help answer the question?

This is most important. Like any other source, data has its flaws. It doesn’t “know” everything. Some data is better than others. Some is more stubborn.

I’ve come to think of it alongside other sources in journalism. But it’s one that you should always consider.

And that’s the first step I’ll offer, before any specific tools, tricks or data sources:

With each story, ask whether there’s a set of data that knows something about the topic.

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 illustrates their point.

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