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Bringing a geodata mindset into journalism

By Dariya Tsyrenzhapova

Location is a common thread that can lead a story and reveal meaningful findings to better serve a community. According to Victor Hernandez of Banjo, geodata also serves as a catalyst enlightening “a technological and a reporting breakthrough” to tell hidden or overlooked stories in underserved communities.

Joe Yerardi, a data reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, said GIS tracking and mapping can provide a leg up in reporting stories about the environment, natural disasters, health care and education. “Journalists can really better understand and master the early indicators around the location of a story,” Yerardi said.

A co-founder of Bloom, a geotagging platform for local news, Stephen Jefferson sees geodata as going beyond just a hashtag. It’s real data that provides “a bridge from digital to reality,” he said. While it offers important insights into the lives of local communities at large, newsrooms can also benefit from using geodata to better understand what their audiences need and want at a given time.

This so-called “editorial intelligence” can equip news organizations with ideas for relevant news coverage of communities they serve, Jefferson said. Metadata can yield compelling insights into user behavior: “Is the local community actually aware of the story, or are people viewing this outside of the community? For readers who are engaging the most with the story, where are they?”

The term “location intelligence” initially emerged from the business side as a strategy to target consumers. But that same idea could be extended to journalistic storytelling, said Amy Schmitz Weiss, an associate professor at San Diego State University. In the meantime, though, Weiss warned that geodata should not be taken at face value – trust, but verify. “If in doubt, don’t go with it,” she said. “There are still opportunities for manipulation. Be skeptical. Interviewing geodata is like interviewing any source.”

To bulletproof your results, Yeradi suggests posing these questions:

  • Does the data analysis make sense?
  • Does it pass a smell test? Does the story seem to be too good to be true?
  • What are the outliers? What is the mean or the median?
  • Is there something about this geographic area that could cause the numbers to be out of proportion?

A tipsheet put together by the panelists provides a list of mapping tools that will help perform geospatial analysis and enhance story presentation, and also offers story ideas for using geodata to elevate the quality of enterprise reporting and storytelling.

Dariya Tsyrenzhapova is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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