Learning the ins and outs of the data world in Chicago

December 6, 2018

For some journalists, numbers can be daunting. Learning to better assess data can help reveal patterns that might spark a story idea. And often, the information can be transformed into visualizations to help the audience understand a complicated topic.

The Poynter Institute — with the support of the McCormick Foundation — hosted a training Nov. 30 at Columbia College led by data journalist Matt Stiles and podcaster Kameel Stanley. They taught Chicago-area journalists the ins and outs of the data world, giving advice on story angles, software and visualization tools.

“What data journalists do is we try to seek evidence to understand stories a little differently,” said Stiles, who reports on Los Angeles County for the Los Angeles Times. “Data journalists use analytical tools to find and tell better stories.”

Stiles said data journalism involves structural information, images, time, maps and graphs. Noting that readers now expect data in reporting, he covered several user-friendly tools including QGIS to analyze geospatial information; SQLite as a database engine that can handle large volumes of information; and Tableau to quickly generate a basic visualization. Tabula is a free tool that extracts data from PDFs and turns the information into a file of comma-separated values that can be imported to a spreadsheet for further manipulation.

Roosevelt University adjunct faculty Shonda Dudlicek said data is not her area of expertise, but she was excited to learn the different ways to tell a story. "My background is primarily in features, so I haven't had a lot of exposure to these kind of things,” she said. “I think it's great to see how you can apply data. … He gives real-world examples like, ‘Here's a story and how I did it.’”

Stanley, who is co-producer and host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “We Live Here,” discussed how data journalism helped her podcast have impact. Her report “Suspended Futures” examined the rate of suspensions for children of color in kindergarten through third grade. Stanley and her team used data to reveal that Missouri students of color were disproportionately given punishment compared with white counterparts.

This finding helped change education policies. Days after the publication of the episode, St. Louis Public Schools banned out-of-school suspensions for young students.  

Nick Blumberg, a producer at WTTW News, said he was impressed by Stanley’s presentation. “Being on the broadcast side, I think the idea of having a podcast or broadcast product really appealed to me and got the wheels turning about how we can do something,” he said.

Using data from a Chicago database, data.cityofchicago.org, Stiles explained that maps help readers understand shape and scale. But he warned that journalists should be wary of the colors they choose for maps. Red and blue tend to denote political maps. Colors such as yellow and red can read “hot” so should be avoided to prevent an unintended emotional response in the reader. And accessibility for the colorblind should also be considered. One tool Stiles mentioned is Color Brewer.  

He stressed that journalists should always make sure numbers are correct, verifying with the distributor that the data is valid. He once thought he had found a lobbyist who had donated $2 million to a campaign, but the lobbyist actually gave $2,000 — zeros got added in the electronic filing. Things like that can happen to anyone, Stiles warned.

Genevieve Bookwalter, a reporter for the Evanston Review and the Chicago Tribune, recounted a time she requested information through the Freedom of Information Act. She said she was overwhelmed by what she received, and that was one of her motivations for attending the training. "I've started using (data) and realizing that it's a great tool to tell my stories but realize that I need to learn a lot more about how to manipulate it so I feel confident in the results I'm getting,” Bookwalter said.