Finding the data unicorn: A hierarchy of hybridity in data and computational journalism (2016)

Traditional reporter rides a disgruntled data unicorn
Get off your high horse!

The title of this week’s paper is fun and short, while its subtitle is pompous and keyword-y. They also have something in common however, as neither makes it clear what the study is about. It actually answers a pretty simple question though: how is data journalism treated in Canada’s legacy news organisations?

Why it matters

Data journalism has been with us in one form or another for at least half a century now, so it’s not exactly a completely new phenomenon. But it has become a lot more popular in the last decade or so; popular enough that even legacy news organisations can no longer afford to ignore it.

Understanding how the rise of data journalism affects data journalists and the rest of the organisation is important for those who work in the field and researchers wanting to learn more about journalistic practice.

How the study was conducted

The authors conducted interviews with 17 journalists from six of Canada’s largest news organisations.

What discoveries were made

The overall theme appears to be that data journalists need to work hard to gain more recognition within their organisations.

Job titles

All interview subjects see themselves either as pure journalists or as journalist/programmers.

Sometimes their official job title is simply “journalist”, but in most cases job titles tend to vary between organisations and consist of a combination of a technological description (e.g. interactive, mobile, digital, data) with titles of traditional roles (e.g. coordinator, editor, producer).

The authors also see the rise of a new role, namely that of the freelance data wrangler: independent journalist/programmers who often work at the intra-organisational level due to frustration with traditional power and resourcing structures that limit the amount of progression that can be made as an in-house data journalist.

Collaboration

Data journalists from different departments often work together. Some of these collaborations are formal (i.e. they’re contractual obligations or forced by the organisational structure). But many are informal and emerge naturally, as individuals understand the value of collaboration.

Contributors from different news organisations see each other as allies rather than competitors: it’s a small world, so people regularly see each other at workshops, conferences, and pub nights. There’s also a strong willingness to help each other on mailing lists and in Slack groupsDoes anyone have recommendations for groups in the Netherlands or Europe? Asking for a friend :D.

Hierarchies

Many interviewees complain that they’re framed in service roles (as a more modern version of a graphics department, that you can make requests of) that only exist to support the work of traditional reporters.

This sometimes has consequences for how data specialists are credited for their work. In some organisations they are clearly subservient to traditional reporters and not credited or only within certain contexts, e.g. only when the work is presented online. Then there are also organisations that do recognise the contributions of their data specialists, but do not allow them to write stories due to union obligations.

Things appear to be a bit better at Canada’s public broadcaster, where staff is generally excited about the work that’s done by data journalists. Data specialists there see it as their goal to educate the newsroom about the possibilities of data journalism.

Prioritisation

The amount of resources assigned to data journalism differs a lot between organisations. Some organisations have an actual digital department with multiple staff members who are able to work on interactive data-intensive projects.

A second tier of organisations also recognises the importance of high-quality data journalism for their long-term survival and aims to achieve a wider organisational transition to digital, but typically lacks the resources to go all in.

The third and last tier consists of organisations that don’t have an institutional strategy or interest in data. Data stories may still be published in such organisations, as long as there are individuals who want to create such stories and have the necessary skills for them.

The important bits

  1. Data specialists who work for or in newsroom have a wide variety of job titles
  2. Data journalists are more likely to collaborate with others within and outside news organisations
  3. Data journalism is often seen as something that is distinct from traditional journalism