by Valerie Cooper
On behalf of the Data and News Society, I sat down with American journalist George Rodrigue, who visited Hong Kong as part of HKBU’s Pulitzer Prize Winners Workshop this past week. We spoke about his career as a data journalist. Rodrigue, the editor of The Plain Dealer in Ohio, began using data to tell news stories in the 1970s, and the skills have helped earn him two Pulitzer Prizes. You can read more about his work here: http://ppww.hkbu.edu.hk/eng/BIO/2016speakers/GeorgeRodrigue.html. The interview has been edited for brevity.
VC: How did you get started in data journalism?
GR: The first thing that I ever did actually was a project at the University of Virginia where we surveyed students about the quality of specific off-campus housing that was kind of like consumer reports – how safe they are, how sanitary they are, all that stuff – and that seemed to fill a need, so I just kept looking for chances to do that kind of stuff as time passed.
It’s a tool, and so you look for chances where using the tool might be appropriate. I went to work for the Atlanta Constitution and, unsurprisingly, patterns of racial settlement were of great interest to people there. At the time, it wasn’t so easy to acquire data, you had punched-in data on census tracts all over town . At the time, again, there weren’t any spreadsheets, you had to code these things by hand. I used an Apple II computer, I remember just essentially staying up all night to work through the problem. Then I had to hand-color a map of census tracts because we didn’t have any mapping programs either, to reflect the changes. That got a lot of attention. It’s basically telling the segregationists where they needed to run. Not what I set out to do, but I knew that I had done that when realtors began calling and asking for extra copies of the map – which I did not provide.
VC: What are some of the biggest changes you have experienced with data journalism?
GR: At the time that I started doing this stuff, I think I was the only person in the newsroom who could do it, because I just had the dumb luck of being fresh out of college, and I was part of the first generation of high school kids that could do computer programming. So, my luck really. Nowadays, I would expect every budding journalist to come in at least with an awareness of basic statistics and an ability to use Excel. I wouldn’t want to have someone who only understands the Excel part and not the statistical part, because that’s kind of like giving a machine gun to a six-year-old – you have to be careful what you’re aiming at. I think it’s possible to do some terrifically misleading work if you’re not careful. I see a lot of good work being done, and a lot of governments now are posting tons and tons of data on publicly accessible web sites. There’s so much more available now, and that’s interesting. Also the tools are way, way better. Even the free tools. We were doing some work in Cleveland on the incidence of lead poisoning among young people, and we had to collaborate with some health researchers at a university. We couldn’t get individual healthcare related information as a newspaper, and so there were pieces of the project we couldn’t do. But in the end, we had a heat map of pretty much every street in Cleveland and what the odds of getting lead poisoning on that street were. That’s a very compelling graphic. It essentially serves as a direct warning to the people at greatest risk, that they should look out for their kids and themselves. The last map was built on QGIS, which is a free spatial analysis program, which nothing remotely like it existed when I was young. So even free tools are pretty amazing.
VC: Is there any particular advice you would have for a budding journalist if they want to get involved in data journalism specifically or journalism in general?
GR: This sort of question applies to people in the States that might be looking to hire. I sort of expect everybody to come in now aware of the use of statistics, with at least one basic statistics course under their belt, with at least some familiarity with Excel. Not everybody does, but I think that’s a reasonable thing for me to expect. If you come and you don’t have that, then you had better be astoundingly terrific at something else. In the same way, I sort of expect everybody to have some familiarity with shooting and editing basic video. Not because I necessarily expect them to do that for me all the time, but it’s almost a test of seriousness. And for sure, if news is going to happen in front of you, in any newsroom in America, we’d expect you to pull out your phone and start doing video. So if you can’t do that, and we need to start from zero with you, well that’s probably not a good sign. I think that if you really want to be hired, it’s a combination of having those baseline skills, and having something that you’re totally passionate about, crazy about doing, and really, really good at. Or at least working hard to become really good at.
If you want to have a toolkit, I think that Excel and Access are things that people ought to be looking at. I think QGIS, which is ArcGIS but free, is something that if you want to play around with, you should. It’s fun and you can do a lot of stuff with maps. And Tableau, which is available free – there’s a paid version and a free version – they do the same stuff. The only thing about the free version is everything you do is in the public sphere, anyone can go look at it. The power to snap a story into focus immediately is really striking there, and so is the power of inventing a set of things that would be fun to use and worthwhile once you get out, those things would be on my list. […]. And there’s a little bit of a division, between who is good at the research and good at the actual visualization stuff, but tools like Tableau or ArcGIS make it easier to do both. If you are the person who can do both, then you’re in a good place professionally. For writing, I think that if you’re great at it, that’s a huge plus. But I think for any applicant, you kind of want to be good enough in some areas and terrific in others. I wouldn’t want to hire a data person who couldn’t write. But if you are a terrific data person, and you’re really serviceable as a writer, then glory hallelujah, I’ll take you. And if you’re a brilliant, brilliant writer and all you can do is cross-tabulations and pivot tables on Excel, well okay.
That’s because of two things: First off, you don’t know what will interest you. And second, you don’t know what you might stumble across, and what tools might be needed to exploit that story. The truth is, most of the best work people do, they’re not doing it all on the fly. They’re noodling around with things, they’re thinking about things, they’re taking sources to dinner, and you want to be the person who can look at a problem from lots of different perspectives and then figure out what the most interesting way to explore that would be. […] Because you’ve got all these new tools, because you’ve got more data coming online all the time, and because you can now do much more sophisticated combinations of databases, you have chances to do stories that were unreachable previously.
VC: Where do you see data journalism placed in a broader context of journalism?
GR: As I mentioned earlier, I think that if you really want to tell a convincing story, you should have a hard kernel of verifiable facts, and if it’s about a large-scale phenomenon you should have some statistical support for it. But if you don’t have individual human beings in it, it’s not a story that many people are going to enjoy reading. It can’t be the end-all be-all. Not for what we do. If you’re a government researcher, maybe sometimes. But our job is to sort of bring this down to a level of simplicity and meaning, where it has an impact on our readers. And not many people wake up every morning saying, “Gee, I want to read a great statistical report today.”
VC: Where do you see data journalism going in the future?
GR: Well, if you extrapolate from where we are today, we’ll have better tools and more data for the foreseeable future. And at some point, and you see this already – Tableau, for example, is a graphing program – you can do amazing things with that just by pointing and clicking. If you want to get into programming, you can do so, but just the basic interface lets you do these amazing interactive graphics which you can post directly on a web site, which can map things. […] I have a theory that if we want to stay in business, and if you want to stay relevant, we’ve got to show our audience that we’re there for them, we’re trying to make their lives better, their communities better.