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Humanizing data: Finding the people behind the numbers

By Maggie Angst

As a data journalist, it's easy to get immersed in a database and forget the groups and individuals who are affected by the data in the story.

Data can be expansive and intriguing, but what matters most is explaining its real-world impact and relevance on specific people and communities, according to panelists at the “Humanizing numbers” panel at the 2016 CAR Conference.

During the discussion, New York Times reporter Andrew Lehren emphasized that journalists, including data journalists, “don’t tell data, we tell stories.”

Lehren said that often what is most important when humanizing data is finding a source that fits best for the story. Lehren and his investigative team at The New York Times interview dozens of people before finding the person, family, or group of individuals who best fit the focus of a story.

“Don’t just have anecdotes,” Lehren said. “Have people whose story resonates all the way through.”

Kendall Taggart, an investigative reporter at BuzzFeed News, said one of her biggest mistakes as a data journalist tends to be “getting too attached to the data.

More often than not, I am spending too much time in a spreadsheet,” Taggart said. “The stories where I go out and talk to activists or lawyers first work out better. Then I find data to back it up afterwards.

Taggart recommended reporters start with a reporting question rather than a data question. For example, Taggart and her team recently worked on a story about Texas jailing truant students. Her team started with a general inquiry into children facing jail time for unpaid fines. From there, Taggart and her colleagues were informed about a law in Texas that forces some truant students to face jail time.

Once they had the reporting question, the team identified the data and individuals to tell the story. With the data they obtained and information on the truant students, Taggart and her team knocked on doors to interview these students and their families. Although Taggart’s team was able to obtain data on the students fairly easily, Taggart said BuzzFeed “would not have been able to find the real humans without the door knocking.”

Elizabeth Shell, digital editor at CCTV America, also underscored the importance of keeping in mind the individuals affected by the data during the reporting process.

While reporting, Shell said she often reminds herself that although data work tends to be reductive, at the core, she is talking about people.

“These are just people and we are at the liberty to tell their stories,” Shell said.

Shell encourages data journalists to be empathetic. In the end, bringing a human element into your story is not only beneficial for making people care about the issue, but it also aids those victims or groups affected by the issue you’re reporting on.

Maggie Angst is a senior at the University of Missouri studying watchdog convergence journalism, with a minor in business.

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