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Avoid data dumps, focus on the story

By Mayra Cruz

News stories should avoid boring readers by not becoming jargon-by-numbers accounts of events, Anthony DeBarros of USA Today said at the "Making sure you tell a story" panel.

“Our readers want better,” he said. “We’ve got to make our stories sing.”

Ron Nixon of The New York Times said reporters have a tendency to make their stories into data dumps surrounded by words. That tendency overwhelms and alienates readers, giving them a “brain overload” with incomprehensible numbers that lack the human element.

Instead, data and numbers should be incorporated to provide context to readers.

Even stories that are primarily about data, like the U.S. Census, don’t really make much sense unless there is a story to tell it, DeBarros said.

Finding the human element in the story will maintain people’s interest by finding the story and using numbers to put into context, Nixon said. In searching for data and numbers, reporters need to use all parts of the gathered information, not just pick and choose information.

“We waste the rest of the stuff,” he said.

Presenting information in context needs to be done to prevent data dumps from showing up in news stories. Presenting all parts of the information in some way to enlighten and not confuse the public.

Ben Welsh of The Los Angeles Times said reporters should take responsibility for keeping up with information regularly sent, such as arrest reports. Automating routine information helps newsrooms get a leg up on not only the competition, but also the agencies who release the information, such as police departments. 

Feeding reports into a database and writing scripts and leads to get the story first to get the information out to the public in a timely manner.

“It’s not a replacement for a reporter,” he said. Reporters still need to find, verify and edit the information in their stories.

Despite all the innovations assisting in reporting, journalists should not forget that they are storytellers first and foremost, the speakers said.

Mayra Cruz is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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