data points

The pitfalls of data journalism

FiveThirtyEight won't have broad appeal without narrative
March 21, 2014

The power in data journalism comes from the ability for numbers and statistics to examine a subject in a measurable way. Sometimes the numbers in play provide the answer to a question. Other times they reinforce, cast doubt on, or simply illuminate a take on a given subject. Data is a powerful storytelling tool, and nothing more.

But Nate Silver seems to think numbers have a newsiness all on their own. When he
introduced his polished, expanded, data-driven FiveThirtyEight earlier this week, he wrote that one of his goals will be to make numbers-based journalism more appealing to a general readership, “to make data journalism vivid and accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing rigor and accuracy.”

But based on the topics of the site has covered so far, it seems that Silver and his team are trying to reach that broad audience without offering a narrative anchor to give the site’s pieces broader appeal, and it’s hard to see the site’s audience growing beyond statistics nerds unless the site’s reporters realize numbers are a means of storytelling, not the story itself.

“These are ‘tweener’ pieces,” economist Tyler Cowen wrote in Marginal Revolution, “too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers. I want something more like the very good Bill Simmons analytic pieces on Grantland, with jokes too, and densely packed narrative, yet applied to a much broader range of topics.”

In its first few days, FiveThirtyEight’s numbers-savvy writers have written about how to parse the words of Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen and how the US and Chinese current account balances (a comprehensive measure of a nation’s international dealings) compare. It’s serious, and arguably academic stuff. There’s also the story about the best deals on the McDonald’s menu based on weight, which I’m sure real numbers nerds are getting a kick out of.

But much of the site’s work so far has been dedicated to familiar topics and news threads, using numbers to show how statistics can be applied to find a missing plane and, logically for any site backed by ESPN, how to fill out brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The quantitative approach to some of these topics is entirely appropriate. The Yellen piece makes the topic of the Federal Reserve accessible, and Silver’s number-crunching on the basketball tournament informed my own bracket.

But with others, the statistical approach isn’t as convincing. FiveThirtyEight’s story on missing Flight MH730 shows shortcomings of trying to explain something already heavily reported. The second sentence of that story states that “statistical tools can’t answer those questions [about the missing plane] any more definitively than Malaysian officials have.” That is, the data-driven story admits in its text that it’s hard to see the value in approaching every big story numerically. It’s understandable to want to have the new site chime in on the biggest story of the last few weeks, but unless the take adds to the understanding of the event, it only adds to the noise created by the hundreds of outlets that are already covering it.

It looks like FiveThirtyEight will try to provide a data angle on big news events. That only means anything if what the site publishes distinguishes itself meaningfully. Silver has faced a lot of criticism for saying that his brand of data journalism yields results that lack bias and that he can, and will, tell a multitude of stories without narrative. Near the end of his piece reintroducing FiveThirtyEight to the internet, he explains:

Narrative accounts of individual news events can be informative and pleasurable to read, and they can have a lot of intrinsic value whether or not they reveal some larger truth. But it can be extraordinarily hard to make generalizations about news events unless you stop to classify their most essential details according to some numbering or ordering system, turning anecdote into data.

It’s true that data does have a way of revealing truths about a lot of things–FiveThirtyEight rose to prominence at The New York Times for its innovative reporting on the last election cycle. It was data journalism at its most powerful and engaging. But that sweet spot only exists if data is placed secondary to the overall journalism.

Late Thursday afternoon, FiveThirtyEight posted another item about the Malaysian plane, this time assessing the likelihood that debris spotted by a satellite could be part of that plane. By digging up real data about trash found in the ocean, this one provided a compelling read, not necessarily because it answered whether the found debris is part of the plane (it didn’t), but because it provided some value to its readers; statistically speaking, the piece says, debris of the size spotted may not be merely just trash.

It’s possible to give Cowen and other qualitative thinkers what they want — compelling and illuminating stories about the world where numbers provide a backbone — but that will mean showing restraint on big news items until the right statistics surface and finding a more compelling way to reach readers on topics like the “current account balance.” Most importantly, those at FiveThirtyEight will have to put themselves in the shoes of their prospective audience and ask a key question: Do the numbers help people understand the stories better?

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.