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Power couple: Data-driven reporting and people-driven narrative

By Fauzeya Rahman

Data-driven reporting must rely on people-driven narratives to evoke the detail, emotion and human element that will make readers care, according to panelists Thursday at the annual IRE conference.

The session, featuring award-winning journalists from the Miami Herald and Washington Post, highlighted two key projects that combined massive amounts of data with personal stories: the Miami Herald’s "Innocents Lost" and the Washington Post’s "Stop and seize."

In "Innocents Lost," the Herald wrote profiles of 477 children in Florida who died of abuse or neglect after falling through Florida’s child welfare safety net, finding some never-before-documented instances of death. "Stop and seize" looked at thousands of cases where police seized money from people without any warrant or charges, totaling millions of dollars across the country.

"We wanted our readers to understand the scale of this problem," the Miami Herald’s Audra Burch said. "We committed to writing profiles of all of these children. We crisscrossed the state, went to cemeteries, read autopsy reports and spent a lot of time with family members."

Burch stressed the importance of detail in these stories.

"Joshua wore Superman pajamas. Jewel wanted to be a princess," Burch said. "We included these kinds of things because we wanted our readers to remember not just their deaths, but to remember their lives. We wanted stories to represent the flaws in Florida’s system."

The Miami Herald created a database from scratch after analyzing thousands of death reviews filed with the Florida Department of Children and Families. They divided cases into various buckets, some matching multiple categories. The Post examined a Department of Justice database with hundreds of thousands of seizure records, federal court cases and internal memos. While data played a key role in illustrating the story’s narrative arc, it didn’t replace the need for verification with real people. 

"Data is scary, and you can get burned on it," Michael Sallah said. "You have to bulletproof it by going to the experts."

Steven Rich echoed this thought.

"The best tool in a journalist’s toolbox is a phone," Rich said. "Call people. Make sure you’re doing things right."

Key takeaways:

  • Find as many real-life examples as possible to illustrate the cases you’ve found in your data. "Statistics themselves don’t tell stories. Families and people tell stories," Carol Marbin Miller said.
  • Approach your story as if it’s a narrative, not a government report. Look for themes, trends and arcs in the data. 
  • Start out with the data team early on. "The data alone will help you develop criteria. Then you go out and find compelling cases, all while working with the data reporter," Sallah said. 
  • Qualify your data and develop the scope of the “universe” you’re studying. 
  • Share your work with a colleague not connected to the story to see if it makes sense. 
  • Bulletproof your data with experts. 
  • Don’t drown your reader in your data.

For more information, check out their read the tip sheet.


Fauzeya is a reporter, researcher and recent graduate from The University of Texas Graduate School of Journalism. She's interested in combining data, investigative reporting and research methods in her work.

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