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How journalists can distill wide, complicated data

By Dariya Tsyrenzhapova

How do journalists make sense out of the abundance of data out there? Are medians and averages actually accurate representations of reality? What are the best ways to improve your storytelling with numbers?

Larry Fenn, a data journalist with the Associated Press, Paul Overberg with the Wall Street Journal and Holly Hacker of the Dallas Morning News sat down at the CAR Conference to share some answers.

Overberg said that indexes can be helpful in tackling and analyzing complex issues. But when it comes to data reporting, journalists’ primary job is to “quantify, analyze and distill” information with a critical eye.

What actually makes a good index? “It’s the power to explain and especially to reveal something,” Overberg said, adding that “simple, transparent and portable” indexes can be applied across a larger population.  

Check out Overberg’s compiled list of indexes that you can utilize and adapt for your reporting.

Panelists said it’s critical for journalists to understand what exactly they want to know out of an avalanche of data variables? “Be careful about going on a variable shopping spree,” warned Hacker. Although it can be tempting, a journalist’s ultimate goal should be to simplify and not over-explain.

Fenn added that factor analysis comes in handy when you try to generalize your data by looking closely at differences and commonalities within a set of numbers.

“It’s up to us, journalists and humans,” Fenn said, “to label these [variables] and to find the actual meaning.” This decision-making process all boils down to figuring out what variables are the most important.

But panelists stressed the importance of finding a relationship in the data that’s linear and not cyclical in nature. This becomes essential when you’re cutting through the disruptive noise in column after column. 

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