More often than not, seasoned journalists are reluctant to embrace new media technologies and big data. It is definitely not the case of Professor Rick Dunham, Director of China Programs and Co-Director of Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. Prof. Dunham was the speaker of this year’s final D&N Society Colloquium, hosted by the School of Communication of Hong Kong Baptist University on December 16th.
Prof. Dunham was a journalist in Washington D.C. for 29 years and had his share of oval office interviews with U.S. presidents. Today, he is confident about how data can add value to journalism. Whether they like it or not, young journalists will gain more in the future if they start thinking today about ways to tap into this unlimited resource. Following a historical approach towards the current problems that journalism is facing, the former White House correspondent highlighted that the news industry has lagged behind data leaders. Ever since the arrival of classified advertisement services such as Craigslist back in 1995, media industry failed to notice that its monopoly on news and information is steadily moving towards new actors. Two decades later, tech giants such as Facebook, Apple and Google have revolutionized the way we search for, access, and use information, thus making the journalist lose control of the content that is out there on the internet.
Is there a way out? Prof. Dunham says there definitely is one if the industry acts quickly and makes use of the resources it has at hand. Data journalism is definitely one of them because it could bring value not only to reporting, but also to the industry as it could solve some of its financial issues. Instead of being afraid of technology, young journalists should fully embrace the digital potential around them. Instead of seeing data journalism as something out of their reach, young reporters should see it as another form of storytelling. There are five main ways in which data adds value to the journalistic profession: 1) it helps journalists tell stories, 2) it helps readers immerse in a story, 3) it allows readers to confirm the validity of journalistic work, 4) it empowers readers to search for more information themselves, 5) it allows the larger community come up with follow up stories and actions.
Rick Dunham then offered examples, both from China and from U.S., of how data was used to tell the stories better, in a way that is easier to understand for the public. With more data than ever before, the journalists who are using it can also perform one of their traditional missions – that of reconnecting with the audience. This is being done when the content benefits of reliable reporting and strong analysis, but also when data is being used for visualization. Thus, in the era of data journalism, the content should not only be reliable, but also packaged in an attractive way.
A data enthusiast, Prof. Rick Dunham does not believe data is an end unto itself, but a means to an end. His advice to HKBU students was to use data when it makes sense and in the best way possible and not just because it is out there. In his opinion, the six essential skills needed for data journalism are: 1) a basic understanding of statistics, 2) knowledge of publicly available databases, 3) download skills, 4) spreadsheet skills, 5) data visualization skills, 6) teamwork skills. There’s no better place than the university to acquire these skills. Those who start getting better today will be the newsroom leaders of tomorrow.