I’ve always liked the journalism adage “Show, don’t tell.” Using techniques such as charts, mining publicly available data or finding data through access-to-information requests gives readers the facts and lets them reach their own conclusions.
It not only respects the reader’s intellect, it provides information they wouldn’t otherwise receive through official channels.
A major study done by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism interviewed readers and viewers on four continents to understand what they trust and don’t trust about news media.
“In short, we find that trust often revolves around ill-defined impressions of brand identities and is rarely rooted in details concerning news organizations’ reporting practices or editorial standards – qualities that journalists often emphasize about their work,” the study found.
The report also said that “perceptions of bias and hidden agendas in news coverage were prevalent, but what people meant often reflected differences in their own political or social identities. … People often expressed complex – and even contradictory – understandings about how norms around objectivity should be enacted (if in fact they were possible), what constituted violations of these norms, or how issues like bias do or do not affect news consumers.”
So this brings me back to more showing and less telling and giving you examples of data journalism. While nothing can be purely objective, detailed reporting of numbers and data provides a strong starting point for discussion.
There have been three great examples in the past month of how to marshall journalistic resources to show the reader what is happening. The Report on Business team of Patrick Brethour, Tom Cardoso, Vanmala Subramaniam and David Milstead looked at the $110.6-billion in federal wage subsidies that were meant to preserve jobs during the pandemic. The Globe and Mail analysis linked Ottawa’s list of thousands of Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy recipients to the Statistics Canada database on Canadian corporate parents and subsidiaries, then cross-referenced that with companies listed on either the Toronto Stock Exchange or the TSX Venture Exchange.
The result was a database showing that 388 publicly traded companies (or their wholly owned subsidiaries) received more than $3.6-billion in CEWS payments as of late January (when the Canada Revenue Agency took down the list of companies).
Last week, reporter Dakshana Bascaramurty and editor Nicole MacIntyre led a major reporting initiative that started with Dakshana’s study of one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit postal codes, L6P in Brampton. Working with local journalists and translating the articles online into four additional languages, the series noted that The Globe “cannot tell the story of L6P on our own. More so, we don’t presume to already know what the story is. We need the community to tell us.” The Globe asked every home and business in the postal code to “tell us how their lives have been impacted by COVID-19,” making it clear that “their answers will guide our journalism.”
It started with a deep look at the data within the postal code but moved on to speak to the residents facing what the headline called “Impossible Choices.” The Globe is collaborating with a half-dozen journalists who live in Brampton or are connected to its predominantly South Asian population. Many of them have battled COVID-19 personally or witnessed its devastating toll.
Coverage of COVID-19 in general has been based heavily on data through The Globe’s dashboard and investigative reporting. Another Reuters Institute study this week found that, in eight countries surveyed, news organizations were the most widely used source of information on the virus.
Earlier this month, data journalist Tom Cardoso won not only the George Brown Award for Investigative Journalism but also Journalist of the Year from the National Newspaper Awards. In articles last year, he found that Canada’s prison system was stacked against Indigenous and racialized people. This work started in 2018, when The Globe filed an access-to-information request with Correctional Service Canada. In response, the agency released almost 750,000 rows of data, representing 50,000 federally sentenced people between 2012 and 2018.
When you show the data behind the news – data that is often hidden or hard to search – this should lead to greater trust in the work of the media and hopefully an informed debate about what to do.
One of the participants in the four continents Reuters study, described as “Lawrence from the US,” told the researchers: “We always talked about developing critical thinking in students. That was a big thing, critical thinking.” He lamented that “a lot of people get that ‘this is what they’re telling me I need to know’ and they never go past that” and “develop the habit of asking questions and being curious.”
This kind of deep, data-based reporting through showing is what develops critical thinking and adds to our curiosity and knowledge.