Tips and resources for learning the basics of data journalism

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I routinely use data in my articles, but I rarely do more than pull numbers from tables on federal websites. Sometimes I have to do a little math to figure out percentage changes. But I have never downloaded raw data into a spreadsheet to perform an analysis for a story or to comb through it for investigative story ideas. However, I would like to know how. And judging from emails I’ve received from AHCJ members, other freelancers would also like to learn some data journalism tools.

So, I turned to Cody WinchesterInvestigative Reporters & Editor’s (IRE)  director of technology and online resources. Winchester, who served previously as IRE’s senior training director, spoke with me about how freelancers can learn the basics of data journalism. (The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

What data skills should a health care reporter have?

At a minimum, any journalist today should be able to do the kinds of things that you are describing, where somebody can hand you a simple spreadsheet that has columns and rows, and you can make some sense out of it. When we’re doing hands-on data training, a lot of it is beginner Excel. The vast majority of people who routinely use data in their newsrooms use Excel. They know how to filter, how to store it, they know how to pivot. And those three skills are, for the vast majority of journalists working in newsrooms, all you need to know. 

Do you always use Excel when teaching spreadsheets?

Excel is sort of a shorthand, but I would also recommend Google Sheets as a free alternative. We do a lot of our training now in Google Sheets because most people have a Google account, but not everybody has an Excel license.

When should journalists ask for raw data from sources to analyze in a spreadsheet? 

I am very much in favor of doing the least amount of work possible to answer the questions you need. The only time I would suggest actually downloading the data from an agency would be if you have reason to want to check their numbers. Usually, statistical agencies like the CDC or the Census Bureau and the like, it’s their job to provide accurate numbers. But if you’re pulling data from, for instance, a county health department that has been resistant to sharing information or there is a lot of politics involved and an indication they might be shading the numbers in a certain way, then you might want to vet that data.

What training does IRE offer freelance reporters interested in learning about data journalism?

We typically have a couple of in-person boot camps each year. Traditionally, these [boot camps] are held at the University of Missouri where we are based, but we have also taken them on the road. And those are for people who are new to data reporting. It is a week of immersing yourselves in spreadsheets and, depending on the programs and packages, we historically have gotten into working with databases, free database tools, and introducing folks to some of the different tools, skills and possibilities. 

And at our conferences, we set up hotel rooms as computer labs. We have people who are coming to the conference to teach these classes, like introduction to spreadsheets, introduction to SQL [for database manipulation], Python, our topical classes and finding the story through data. We had a bunch of COVID-related sessions where we said, ‘Here’s a data set. Let’s go through it from beginning to end and see how we can find the story in this dataset,’ which is usually pretty handy.

Do you have online training?

We have a couple of mini-boot camps. And we have the NICAR learning platform, which has on-demand videos about data tools. NICAR stands for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, [a collaboration between IRE and the Missouri School of Journalism]. So, there is a series on Excel, Google Sheets, Python, and on OpenRefine, which is a tool for cleaning data, and so on. 

 Do you have to be a member of IRE to access these resources? 

You have to be a member to buy a ticket to attend our training events, so boot camps, mini-boot camps or conferences, that sort of thing. You do not have to be a member to access NICAR learning videos. And you can get a year of free access to the NICAR learning platform by signing up online. 

Does IRE offer discounted fees to freelancers for the full and mini-boot camps?

Yes, we have a freelancer rate. Next month, I am teaching a mini-boot camp online [about] Python for data analysis. You buy your ticket by the size of your newsroom if you are in a newsroom. So, division one is the largest, and that is going to be $600, all the way down to students and freelancers, who get a ticket for $200. And that is two days of online instruction. 

Is it possible for a freelancer to hire IRE to do data analysis for a story?

We have our data services division. We are only accepting new requests during the school year because a lot of the work is done by graduate students and overseen by our NICAR advisor. So, if you’re looking to hire somebody, you can always shoot us a note.

Are there other places where reporters can look for a data journalist to collaborate with or to ask questions about data journalism?

There are three places where I hang out, and a lot of folks in data journalism hang out. The first one is the NICAR-L listserv, which is a good place for asking data journalism-related questions. Then there are two Slack teams that I would recommend. The first one is called the News Nerdery Slack team, which is probably one of the biggest gathering places for data journalists around the world, and it has an active jobs channel that includes freelance opportunities. And the other one is called the Lonely Coders Club.

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