Earthquake ‘data’ doesn’t add up

Many online news outlets reposted a chart that didn't really show readers anything new

On Sunday, the San Jose Mercury-News unveiled the first in a series of stories about how California’s foster children are receiving untested behavioral drugs at a way higher rate than children nationwide. The introductory 5,000-word piece — based on a year of reporting and accompanied by a number of photos, videos, and infographics explaining the issue — lays the groundwork for a five-part series that aims to show that “with alarming frequency” foster children are being treated for their behavior with these drugs. The newspaper recognized this story couldn’t be told without the numbers and fought the state to get the relevant data. Though it hadn’t acquired all that it requested, the Mercury-News gets a LAUREL for harnessing the data they were able to acquire to produce such an ambitious project.

On Monday, a 6.0-magnitude earthquake centered in the Napa Valley shook Northern California. Technology company Jawbone had a blog post on its website graphing out how people wearing its UP device, which can track sleep patterns as well as several other pieces of fitness-related data, were woken up by the earthquake. The graph was reposted by dozens of journalism outlets, but few of the rewrites went beyond conveying the “gee whiz” nature of this technology. Had we not looked at Jawbone’s graph, we would have naturally come to the conclusion that big earthquakes disturb sleep. Technology like Jawbone’s device can have fascinating journalistic applications, but these pieces essentially seem like rewrites of press releases. We’re doling out DARTS all around the online journalism world for reposting what was essentially free marketing for a company’s product.

Nearly three weeks after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, racial disparity and police accountability continue to be a relevant topic in data journalism. We covered some good and bad examples of data journalism about these topics last week, but there’s more to address. WNYC gets a LAUREL for its elegant visualization of how complaints filed against the New York Police Department are handled by a complaint review board as well as by the police. Through a series of steps, the visualization shows how cases are handled at each step of the process: The complaint board recommends a certain action on each case and the police department ultimately chooses what to do. Though the visualization lacks specifics of individual cases, it’s still a compelling look at the impotency of the police review process in America’s largest city.

This week, the Gawker Media websites have taken an interest building a comprehensive nationwide database of police-involved shootings. The namesake Gawker site posted a piece by the editor of the Reno News & Review, D. Brian Burghart, who has been attempting to create a crowdsourced national database. He writes why it’s important:

How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know “best practices” for dealing with any fluid situation?

Deadspin, Gawker Media’s sportscentric site, is taking on a project similar to Burghart’s, with the hope that it will have an impact on law enforcement policy. We’re interested to see where this project might be headed and give the Gawker Media sites a LAUREL for recognizing a gap in information as well as working to fill it.

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism.