Tips on Teaching Data and Investigative Journalism

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Milagros Salazar discusses the limits of relying on data at #GIJC17. Photo: Daylin Paul

Investigative journalism and data skills training differs depending on the country in which it is being taught. During the first academic track panel, presenters from four different countries shared methods for teaching investigative journalism and presented research on the pitfalls and benefits of using data.

Yasmine Bahrani teaches at the American University of Dubai, Paulette Desormeaux Parra is a teacher at the Universidad Católica de Chile, Laurence Dierickx is researching for a PhD at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and Milagros Salazar works for Convoca, a Peru-based investigative journalism organization.

Teaching Methods in Dubai

While teaching investigative journalism in Dubai, Bahrani experienced the limits of applying her US-based training to students with varied backgrounds.

Whether it is due to their religious backgrounds or Dubai culture – privacy is highly valued in Dubai – many of Bahrani’s students do not want to rock the boat. Dubai also does not have the same kind of access to public information as the US and other countries do.

Instead of training her students to go after government officials and rely on public data, Bahrani teaches them to focus on raising awareness of issues, and to rely on first-hand accounts, interviewing and reporting from the scenes.

Using these methods, Bahrani’s students have written stories on sales techniques used by high-end fashion stores, false pricing by supermarkets, the lack of care for the mentally ill in Dubai, and how cultural convictions have resulted in a number of unnecessary deaths due to breast cancer.

Teaching Latin-American Students

Desormeaux Parra started an investigative class in 2013 with four students at the Universidad Católica de Chile in Peru. Three semesters later her class had 40 students.

Desormeaux’s definition of a successful story is one that is socially relevant. Her students’ stories have awards and they have been replicated by mainstream media and used as the basis for bigger investigations.

The first and most important point in Desormeaux’s methodology is to focus on experiential learning. Desormeaux tells her students not to rely on leaks and to make sure their story reveals something hidden, has public relevance, and is a product of their own initiative.

To get her students to produce stories that meet these goals, Desormeaux follows the following 10 “golden rules.”

  1. Work as a team: Students are not used to this but they need to learn how to work in group.
  2. Find a story you care about: Make students look at news and think about the issues they face in their own lives.
  3. Pitch your story: Student are made to present their projects in front of key journalists and editors. It is important to prepare this presentation and to make sure the stories are feasible.
  4. Plan your investigation: Desormeaux teaches her students to use hypotheses, timelines, source maps and time management to make sure they get everything done and do not lose sight of the project.
  5. Base your story on FOIA requests.
  6. Focus on open sources such as real estate records, official bulletins, stock markets and Security and Exchange Commission documents.
  7. Follow your teacher: Hold weekly editorial meetings and work with small groups of students. Make them hand in reports and three versions of the final story to ensure that there is an open communication between the tutor and students.
  8. Get out into the world: Take the students out of their comfort zones and encourage them to go out and report. Desormeaux took her students on field trips with practical exercises such as going to judicial archives and doing research.
  9. Fact-check and publish.
  10. Move the border: Desormeaux tells her students they need to go beyond the limits imposed on gathering information by making appeals at the Council for Transparency, for example. Her students have won access to documents they were denied at first request by bringing it to the council.

Finding Quality Indicators for Using Data

In her PhD research, Dierickx tries to build data-quality indicators and argues for their usefulness in journalistic projects.

While data quality is difficult to define, as there are many different contexts to define them in, Dierickx’s research brings together multiple ways to measure data quality into a singular method.

There are four technical axes on which to define data quality:

  1. The understandability of data sets: Look for unique identifiers, available metadata, conformity of metadata and terms of use.
  1. Encoding: Look at whether there are problems with encoding the data, if there is an HTML overload and duplicate data.
  1. Normative: How is the data confirmed to standards such as email addresses, dates, geolocation?
  1. Semiotic: Are there no missing values, is there no orthographical incoherence and is the labelling explicit?

Dierickx also listed journalistic and empirical ways to evaluate data quality.

Going Beyond the Data

Salazar presented the pitfalls of solely relying on data in investigative journalism. More specifically, Salazar stressed the necessity to go outside of your data for verification purposes and to put a human face to the numbers. Salazar works for Peru-based organization Convoca. Her research focused on trends in Latin-American data journalism.

In her presentation, Salazar enumerated seven points to consider in order to prevent “visualizing lies with databases” and ensure the public importance of data-driven stories.

  1. Look at the data critically.
  2. Interviewing the database and confronting it.
  3. Building new databases and reveal what is hidden. In Latin America, there is a need to build databases as government documents are often in non-accessible formats.
  4. Always looking deeper. Cross-reference databases and as questions that will generate impact.
  5. Following data beyond borders. Expand your research to foreign information, follow the money across borders, and work together with journalists from other countries.
  6. Applying methodology with rigor and being transparent with decisions. Journalists need to show their process of working with databases so the readers can come to their own conclusions.
  7. Exploring various formats to publish findings and involve the audience. Go beyond graphs and maps. Consider creative ways to present data such as comics and videogames.

Make sure to look at the Tipsheets page for each presenter’s full presentation. The Investigative Journalism Education Consortium will also publish a reader with all the papers featured at the academic track.

Jelter Meers is a Belgian investigative reporter who works for the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium based at the University of Illinois. He helped coordinate the academic track and has worked on topics ranging from the agrichemical business to human trafficking.

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