Times editor says media not ‘driven’ to data journalism

The term “data driven journalism” has suddenly become popular. Yet data illiteracy among journalists is high, according to Aron Pilhofer. But it’s not rocket science,” he said, and insisted it is “critical” for reporters to acquire at least some basic skills.

In his opinion, it is still hard to get reporters to think about using data as a source, to consider different ways and angles to tell a story. But the real barrier to data-based stories is that “at the highest level,” the importance of data journalism has “only gone so far,” he said. At the top level, it’s a skill that’s “been undervalued.” So, it’s not only a matter “of how important to you as a reporter these skills are” but “how important does you boss and your boss’s boss think they are.”

Given the tools we now have, what do you think is the main challenge reporters face when dealing with data?

To me, it’s not a problem of tools. I mean, we have more computing power, more ability to do stuff now than ever. With Amazon EC2, you can spin up basically a supercomputer for an afternoon, if you wanted to, and pay $100 or something like that, if you needed to analyze large amounts of data. It’s not a technology problem; it’s a people problem.

Where does the resistance come from? What’s the problem?

It ranges from sins of omission to sins of commission. I think there are reporters who, either because they are afraid of data or have some notion data analysis isn’t necessary, feel that old-fashioned reporting is the way it’s been done, has always been done and always should be done. And that to me is a sin of commission. On the other side, there is a problem in newsrooms that’s just a lack of awareness that this is even a tool, a technique or a possibility. That to me is the more tragic of the two.

What could media companies do?

It requires an investment. it requires someone at a high level to say: ‘You know what, this reporter might be a good writer but instead I am going to hire this other person who might not be quite as good and fluent as a writer but is a better reporter – somebody who can bring some of these new tools and technologies.’ And, unfortunately, I think very few news organizations have made that investment.

In your opinion, how important is this skill for reporters moving forward?

I’ve covered ‘money and politics’ and most of the people I’ve competed with and worked with are totally data-illiterate and nobody seemed to have problems with that. Neither their bosses nor they seem to have a problem with that. That gave me a competitive advantage over them. They knew that I had a competitive advantage over them. Yet, still it never seemed to dawn on anybody that this is something that maybe they ought to get in line with.

I don’t honestly know how many reporters do their jobs without having some really simple basic data skills. But still, many reporters seem to be doing their job fine and their bosses seem to think they are doing a great job. So maybe I’m wrong, but to me it’s critical.

How would you describe simple basic data skills? What is that for you?

Knowing your way around the spreadsheet, having some basic understanding of statistics. Having the ability to do some simple things like importing some data into a spreadsheet, a desktop database manager like Access, doing some basic queries, sorts.

I teach and have taught for years basic computer-assisted reporting and I do it in this one-day class. Nobody believes me, but it’s totally true: In one day – ONE DAY – we can teach you the skills that if mastered would allow you to do 80 percent of all the computer-assisted reporting that has ever been done. This is importing a spreadsheet, doing some basic math, knowing what a sum is, what a mode, a median, what an average is. I mean, being able to take a dataset, to do some basic count. I mean, this is not rocket science, for the most part. But even most of what I’ve described to you is beyond most reporters in most newsrooms.

How did you develop this interest?

It was just something that I always did. Because when you’re covering a small school or when you’re covering a local government or whatever, how do you not throw their annual budget into a spreadsheet to make sure that everything adds up? … When you’re talking about contracting, when you’re talking about all the ways influence peddling happens and the responsibility of the reporter is to be the watchdog for the public, I don’t know how people do their job without knowing that kind of stuff. A better question is ‘How do reporters get their job done without it?’

Teresa Bouza (’12) interviewed Aron Pilhofer at the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference in St. Louis, Mo. Pilhofer, who is on IRE’s board of directors, leads a team of journalists and developers who build data-driven applications to enhance The Times reporting online.