Investigative broadcast journalists across the country gathered at the 2016 CAR Conference and shared some of their secrets for bringing data to life on TV.
1. Get raw data
KXAS-TV producer Eva Parks explained how her team requested complaint and violation records concerning noise at the Dallas Love Field airport. Unfortunately, the city of Dallas responded with simplified infographics summarizing the data. She said such documents are easy to look at, but not useful for journalists. Parks stressed the importance of getting raw data and looking at the numbers just as they would appear on the computer of the public servant working with the data.
2. Look into public meetings
Jeremy Jojola of KUSA-Denver talked about how his investigative team overcame the challenge of finding people to talk to about numbers for a six-part series, Citation Nation. Analyzing 270 different town budget and revenue reports, the KUSA team found that police fines and fees make up close to or more than 50 percent of the revenue for some towns in Colorado. Not surprisingly, KUSA struggled to find public officials who would explain the numbers.
Public meetings can be useful in these cases, Jojola said. Officials often feel less ambushed and respond better to questions when they happen in a public forum. Public hearings and meetings are also a great opportunity to observe public reaction and find members of the community concerned about the issue.
3. Create your own database
Sometimes, data investigations involve creating your own database from multiple documents. That’s what Jenna Susko of KNBC-Los Angeles did when her investigative unit had to look into how a mayor had been using his personal reward cards for employee travel. Because the city didn’t have an existing electronic database of public servant travel records, KNBC had to go through paper copies of travel receipts and build an electronic database of their own.
4. Look for compelling stories in unexpected places
Susko also presented her investigative team’s story on the thriving industry of school filming in Los Angeles. KNBC examined school contracts and filming permit records to see which film companies were shooting school footage, what they were using it for, how much schools were paid and how the money was being spent. Susko said teachers and parent were very hesitant to talk to the reporters, which made it difficult for them to humanize the numbers. But then the reporters happened to see three students, including one wearing a high school T-shirt, in a video clip of a red carpet event for an adult film. So the journalists looked through high school yearbooks to find the students. They later learned that the high school had been allowing a company to film a pornographic film on campus. Obviously, this became a compelling hook for the story.
5. Let people illustrate the numbers
Some stories start with a human source that leads to a request for data. Other times, speakers said, they requested records and data without a clear idea of where that information might take them. But no matter how you start your reporting, the speakers agreed that human faces are crucial to making your numbers relatable to the people in your community.
Soo Rin Kim is a University of Missouri senior studying investigative reporting and data journalism. She interned at The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and currently works as a student assistant in the IRE Resource Center.