Interview with researcher Felix Irmer on data journalism, society and distrust

“Data journalism, journalism informed by quantitative evidence, is an expanding field”, says researcher Felix Irmer, of the Institute of Communication and Media Studies, Leipzig University (Germany). He was one of the speakers at the European Science-Media Hub Summer School from 6-10 June 2023.

Data journalism can “transform large amounts of data and information into digestible narratives that are accessible and relevant to the public”, says Felix Irmer. “It is believed to be one way of tackling the distrust that other types of journalism face”. At the journalism department, he researches data driven reporting and its organisational structures and processes.

What is data journalism and how has it influenced storytelling?

Felix Irmer profileFelix Irmer: Data Journalism is journalism informed by quantitative evidence. It is actually two things at once: on one hand, it serves as a process of quantitative inquiry, and on the other hand, it’s a journalistic story type that displays data in some shape or form. This enables data and empirical evidence to not only uncover patterns and trends that may otherwise remain hidden but also to turn it into visualisations and interactive pieces that make the information more compelling for the audience. Interactive dashboards, for example, enable readers to alter different filters to get a better understanding of specific aspects of a topic and explore the data in an interactive way. At the same time, data journalism can also come in rather simple shapes and forms and blend in with traditional storytelling. The insights of the quantitative inquiry process can, for example, be reflected by numbers featured in a text-based story.

Why is data journalism important?

Felix Irmer: Data journalism is important because we live in a society with more and more available data. Traditionally, journalism was mostly qualitative – you interview someone and then get a sound bite that you can use. But now with data journalism, we have the potential to add a quantitative component to it. This helps us to transform large amounts of data and information into digestible narratives that are accessible and relevant to the public. This can be useful to identify larger trends and structural patterns.

Because data journalism is based on a quantitative analysis, it seems to resonate well with policymakers who use the information to help them understand the potential consequences of their political decisions. Because there is a tendency to add a methodology section as well as the original data sets to reports, data journalism is believed to be one way of tackling the distrust that other types of journalism face. Data journalism also has a close link to investigative journalism and thereby to holding powerful institutions and individuals to account.

How does someone become a data journalist?

Felix Irmer: Traditionally, there are two paths. One pathway starts with a traditional journalistic profile that then gets upskilled or diversified toward data work. The other common path that data journalists take is from the data or natural sciences into the world of communication and journalism. Both approaches require additional training or upskilling. Even if you understand and have access to the complex data sets and information, it still needs to be analysed, contextualised, and communicated effectively to have a meaningful impact on an audience.

For those who have neither a journalist nor a data science background, a third path is also possible. However, this requires a self-starter or self-learner mindset. For those wanting to become a data journalist, I would recommend thinking about the competencies that you already have and then finding specific courses or resources that can help you to build on the skills or knowledge that you are missing.

What are the most exciting aspects of data journalism?

Felix Irmer: Ultimately, I’m a data journalism researcher. I’m standing on the side-line and observing the observers. But I find the way in which data journalism mirrors society to be incredibly interesting. It is at the heart of technological innovation and reflects the complexities of the world and highlights important issues.

Data journalism is also an expanding field that is both professionalising and institutionalising. Over the last 10-15 years, it has grown from focusing on relatively small projects to larger ones that require a team of data journalists to work on. While this can make things more complicated, it also enables different skills and competencies to be pooled together to tackle stories and data sets more effectively. As the availability of data increases and technology to analyse this data improves, the possibilities for data journalists also continue to expand!

Related article

Leave a Reply