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Ten irrefutable and nonnegotiable rules of responsible data journalism

Few things in life (and journalism) are literally irrefutable and nonnegotiable. But we think this list comes pretty close. Journalists who use data come from a variety of backgrounds and have a wide spectrum of resources, skills, and time to do the work. Regardless of these differences, we’ve put together some simple rules that apply to a year-long project or a two-day turnaround, to a recent boot camp graduate or a veteran SQL hound, to a spreadsheet or a relational database.

  1. Remember to refer to data as plural, unless you find it annoying (and I do).

  2. Always save a copy of the original data. Keep it somewhere safe. Never mess with it.

  3. Understand the data before you touch it. Read any available documentation, go through the record layout, talk to the agency that keeps and/or created the data.

  4. Assume nothing about your data: what’s in it, what’s not in it, what that ambiguous “date” field refers to; nothing.

  5. Know your data. Run integrity checks on all of your columns, know the range of your date fields, the cleanliness of your geography fields; know it inside and out.

  6. Check record counts. When you import data, check the number of records imported against the documentation, or ask the agency for a record count. When you slice a table or join two tables, make sure the count of the results makes sense.

  7. Never make changes to any of your data columns. Create new columns for those changes.

  8. Be suspicious. If your results don’t look right, or aren’t what you expected, investigate. Find out why.

  9. Have someone else check your work, ideally someone who understands data but is not involved in the project.

  10. Be confident. Don’t let fear make you second-guess your every move. If you’re careful and diligent, data can improve your story.

If you have rules that you feel should be added to this list, or if you'd like to campaign for the removal of one of these items, please email liz@ire.org with your arguments.

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