Data journalism, computer-assisted reporting and computational journalism: what’s the difference?

Is data journalism more networked and open than computer-assisted reporting (CAR) and computational journalism? The differences are examined in a journal article in Digital Journalism by Mark Coddington of the School of Journalism of the University of Texas at Austin. He has developed four dimensions in his typology, based on his analysis of about 90 texts (academic and professional) about these forms of ‘quantitative journalism’. The four dimensions, each of which he presents as a range between two opposing poles, are:

  1. professional expertise vs networked information — how far is it the limited domain of ‘professionals’ (linked also to the norms and practices of traditional ‘professional’ journalism) vs a more open, networked approach involving ‘non-professionals';
  2. transparency vs opacity — how far does it disclose the processes, practice and/or product;
  3. targeted sampling vs big data — does it gather and analyse a sample (probably then relying on inference or causality to draw conclusions) or a more comprehensive data set or collection (probably emphasising exploratory analysis and correlation); and
  4. seeing the public as active vs passive — the first linked to a more participative, interactive vision of the public, and the second to a more traditional, passive conception.

Mark Coddington’s diagram provides a useful summary of this, and how he situates CAR, data journalism and computational journalism along these four dimensions:

Typology of data-driven journalism

How Mark Coddington characterises data journalism, CAR and computational journalism. From his paper:

In some ways, the main dividing line is between CAR and the other two. This is perhaps not surprising, given that CAR has been around much longer and so — almost inherently — is tied more closely to ‘traditional’ ideas of journalism. Data journalism and computational journalism, on this analysis, have more in common, but perhaps differ most clearly in two ways. Data journalism is characterised as more ‘open’ (transparent) than computational journalism, and as less ‘professional’ in its orientation — ie more networked and accessible to those who are not ‘professional journalists’. (Data journalism as the new punk, anyone?)

Most data journalists (plus CA reporters and computational journalists etc) are unlikely to be bothered by how their work is classified, as Mark Coddington notes — mentioning Adrian Holvaty’s “Is data journalism? — Who cares?” post. But it does matter to researchers. Why? Because, he explains, “these definitional questions are fundamental to analyzing these practices as sites of professional and cultural meaning, without which it is difficult for a coherent body of scholarship to be built”.

He adds that this is an initial attempt at classifying CAR, data journalism and computational journalism, in what is still an emerging and developing field. Also, his study relies heavily on research in the USA and Scandinavia. While much of his typology rings true to what I know of data journalism in the UK (and CAR and computational journalism, to a lesser extent), I wonder how far it might differ here, and indeed elsewhere.

My interest (apart from running an MA programme that includes data journalism) stems partly from having written about the development of data journalism in the UK in a chapter in Data Journalism: mapping the future, That is when I came to realise how far the emergence of data journalism in the UK drew on US journalism’s experience of CAR, trainers from the States etc — helped along by the arrival here of the Freedom of Information Act and the open data movement. I’ve also touched on this topic in discussion with a US journalist who said he saw not difference between CAR and data journalism.

Cervical cancer vaccine, online news, Google and SEO

SEO expert Malcolm Coles kicked off an interesting experiment yesterday, to shift the emphasis in Google’s search results away from “negative and inaccurate information” (eg some news stories) linking a girl’s death to the cervical cancer vaccine and towards NHS pages about the vaccine.

More by Malcolm here about the tendency of some news stories to suggest (or make) a connection between the death and the vaccine.

He has been encouraging bloggers and others to publish web links, with relevant linked text, to influence Google’s search results, such as cervical cancer jab, cervical cancer vaccine, and cervical cancer vaccine Q&A.

So far, the NHS seems to have bought ‘sponsored links’ against some search key words, but I don’t see any of the NHS sites in the first page of Google’s search results for “cervical cancer jab”, which continues to be dominated by news stories.

Paying the price: cost of Johnston Press’s debt

Sobering stuff as Peter Kirwan spells out the numbers underlying Johnston Press’s refinancing of £485m debt. As he puts it, “the maths are grim”, concluding that:

the running total for bank payments comes to £75.2m during the next year. Remarkably, this equates to an annualised interest rate of neither 5% nor 10%, but 15.5%.

This, remember, is before Johnston Press repays any of its outstanding loans. Here, too, the terms of the deal are draconian. In addition to everything else, the company has promised to repay £85m of debt by next May.

Now clearly, this is a lot of money for a rapidly-shrinking regional newspaper publisher that turned in £27.5m in pre-tax profits during the first six months of this year.

Kirwan then raises the prospect — if Johnston is unable to repay that £85m by May 2010 — of payment in kind (PIK) penalties, which could take the effective interest rate to 20% or more. Gulp.

Andrew MacKay MP told local paper ‘nothing in expenses stood out’

Spot the contrast:

Andrew MacKay tells his local paper:

I have checked through all my expense claims over the past four years and there is nothing that stands out – I am confident there is nothing unreasonable in there at all.

Andrew MacKay resigns as Cameron’s aide, the BBC reporting that:

he now realised the arrangement did not pass Mr Cameron’s “reasonableness” test and he felt it was “wrong” to remain in his position.

Does it come down to what is “reasonable”?

Mr MacKay and his wife claimed second homes allowances on two separate properties, with Mr MacKay saying they had done so “for eight or nine years”.

Journalism meets data: J-school seeks professor, journalism seeks techies

An interesting vacancy at Medill School of Journalism (Northwestern University, Illinois), which is advertising for a professor of database journalism “to teach data analysis and interactive deployment of data”. Good stuff. According to the vacancy note:

The successful candidate will have expertise in analyzing data for journalistic work and will be expected to teach students how to create and deploy database-driven applications on the World Wide Web and other digital platforms.

I imagine this role will complement the Journalist-Programmer scholarships at Medill, set up by Rich Gordon (and funded by a Knight News Challenge grant). The scholarships are geared towards programmers or web developers who are interested in journalism.

Bringing people with an IT background into journalism, rather than vice-versa, echoes the experiences of Aron Pilhofer, head journo-techie at the New York Times. Eric Ulken wrote up some interesting points from their discussions, including:

When I throw out the old question about whether it’s easier to teach a journalist programming skills or to teach a techie the principles of journalism, he tells me it’s not so much a question of trainability. Rather, he says, “there are more programmers out there that will find journalism interesting to learn” than vice-versa. He tells me that, with a couple of exceptions, the people on his team have either “very limited journalism experience or none whatsoever.”

There’s another interview with Pilhofer here, on Old Media, New Tricks.

How the numbers (don’t) add up for newspapers if they axe print

Alan Mutter (aka Newsosaur) picks up on a point from the ‘New Business Models for News’ summit at City University of New York, arguing that scrapping print isn’t a solution, given that 90% of US papers’ revenue comes from ads sold in the print product.

Assuming it would cut costs by 60%, scrapping the print paper would mean the following, he suggests, for a $100m-revenue publishing company with a 15% operating profit:

If the company abandoned print but were able to double its online sales to $20 million, it would lose $14 million in a year, for an operating margin of a negative 70%. To break even, the prototypical publication would have to more than triple its sales from the current levels. To make a profit of 15%, the company would have to quadruple it sales.

A particularly tough target, Mutter adds, because around two-thirds of online revenues typically come from add-on sales to advertisers who are buying space in the print edition.

But this kind of online-only operation is not a pipe-dream, maintains Tim Windsor. Responding in comments on Cory Bergman’s post, he says making it work would need a much smaller newsroom with one or two community managers to make the most of user-generated content, plus linked/licensed content. A core staff of 20 multimedia reporters, he suggests. (Those comments via Mark Hamilton.)

Why journalists failed to predict the banking crisis

The developments that led to the current banking crisis seem to have been incremental, took place over a number of years, and together affected the whole system. Is that why journalists failed to see its demise?

I wonder about the role of human psychology, as one of many possible factors that worked against the reporting on developments that contributed to the current crisis.

…the most important “defaults” of the human mind are to look for discrepancies in the world, to ignore what is going on constantly, and to respond quickly to sudden shifts, to emergencies, to scarcity, to the immediate and personal, to “news”.

So wrote psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich in New World, New Mind nearly 20 years ago. They argue that the human brain is poorly equipped to tackle many modern challenges: still primitive, it responds primarily to dramatic sensory changes (fight or flight and all that). In contrast, contemporary issues that tend to be evident mostly through gradual changes are seen as less significant or urgent.

For millions of years these “defaults” of the mind have worked well. They do not work well in a world where 2 billion people could be killed by a simple misjudgment, and our defaults do not even work so well in the day-to-day world of modern life…

Ornstein and Ehrlich focused on environmental change — but perhaps their theory applies validly to other areas, too. A psychology of news values in journalism? You read it here first. Probably.

There’s a tenuous link with some of the more familiar factors being put forward. Alex Brummer, the Daily Mail’s City editor, says few financial journalists understood the systemic problems that were piling up. He also highlighted the difficulties for journalists in dealing with powerful PR and threats of having access withdrawn:

Brummer says that too many financial journalists are bamboozled by the ‘manipulative’ PR operations of big companies, and some are too fearful that they will lose access if they are too critical. ‘The duty of a journalist is always to be sceptical. But they are up against very powerful institutions who lie and cheat.’

James Robertson, who wrote the piece, also quotes Dan Bögler, the FT’s managing editor, on why his paper didn’t do better:

Why didn’t we spot it? Unfortunately, financial journalists — and the FT has better-trained financial journalists than others — don’t really understand this stuff, and they join a long list of people that starts with bank regulators, central bank regulators and money managers.

No journalists appear on the list of ten people who “predicted the financial meltdown”, compiled by the Money Central blog at Times Online (tagline: Advice you can bank on). Perhaps no surprise there, although there are some honourable exceptions, such as those mentioned in the comments on that post.

Liverpool Daily Post liveblogs Rhys Jones trial and banking crisis

It’s nearly a live broadcast of the trial — an impressive exercise in liveblogging by the Post (below), particularly given the legal restrictions on court reporting with which the paper’s reporters and editors have to comply. Reporter Ben Rossington seems to be including lots of details and quotes.

As the page notes at the top of the liveblog section,

Submitted comments cannot be published for legal reasons throughout the trial

(Are comments being submitted anyhow — to be published after the case, perhaps?)

I imagine there’s also a risk of having to edit material already published if, for example, the judge decides during the proceedings that a particular defendant must not be named.

Then there are the logistics, which must be easier where it’s a high-profile case (such as this) and proceedings are video-linked to a separate press area. Otherwise — assuming laptops are not permitted in the court itself — it would probably need a reporter to duck out of the gallery every so often and post from his shorthand notes.

Post editor Mark Thomas hasn’t had any responses so far to his blog request for feedback on the paper’s liveblogging. Deputy editor Alison Gow posted some interesting reflections on her experience of liveblogging at the Post last month, with some dos and don’ts. (If either of you would like to say more here about the Rhys Jones trial or bank crisis liveblog, please add comments.) The paper has used the technique to cover different events this year, including football matches and the giant spider robot La Machine.

The liveblog on the banking crisis (below) seems to be a joint effort with the Birmingham Post and The Journal (Newcastle), among others. Looking at the liveblog on the Post’s dedicated business site, I can see it’s been attracting a few comments — it would be fascinating to know the impact of either liveblog on the sites’ hits/pageviews. Both use the Cover It Live software.

The liveblog of the Rhys Jones trial isn’t the first time a UK paper has covered a case live (or as live as possible) — the Evening Star in Ipswich and the East Anglian Daily Times used similar methods earlier this year to report the trial of Steve Wright, with brief live updates.

Nick Robinson: ‘I got too close to government in reporting Iraq’

The BBC’s political editor regrets:

The biggest self-criticism I have was [that] I got too close to government in the reporting of the Iraq war. I didn’t do enough to go away and say ‘well hold on, what about the other side?’ It is the one moment in my recent career where I have thought I didn’t push hard enough, I didn’t question enough and I should have been more careful.

Robinson offered this candid self-assessment in a debate on political campaigners and reporters at City University last night — as reported by one of my journalism students, Michael Haddon, for, and on his own blog. Michael also wrote about Iain Dale’s comments on political reporting (and on his blog).

As for the government line on weapons of mass destruction, Robinson said:

I don’t think the government did set out to lie about weapons of mass destruction. I do think they systematically and cumulatively misled people.

What’s the distinction? It was clear to me that Alastair Campbell knew how what he was saying was being reported, knew that that was a long way from the truth, and was content for it so to be. They knew it was wrong, they wanted it to be wrong – they haven’t actually lied.

Footnote to Michael and someone at check spelling — it’s Alastair not Alistair (corrected in quote above). Bring back the subs!

The news about Robert Peston: meta-reporting?

Update: Michael Howard has asked the FSA to investigate the alleged leaking to Peston/the BBC of sensitive information about the bank rescue package, reports Guido Fawkes.


The BBC’s business editor is becoming the news, and not just as in the spoof article I bookmarked previously.

The House of Lords communications committee asks whether he’s setting the agenda:

“Well, I think there is an argument for that. One can’t deny that Robert Peston has been playing an instrumental role in the story and anyone in the news business has to pay close attention to what Robert Peston reports,” the Daily Mail political editor, Ben Brogan, told the committee.

“He is well informed, well connected and he has on a number of occasions broken the news it would be foolish in the extreme to ignore him. That, in some ways, gives him an enormous degree of power. But more power to his elbow, if he’s the journalist that is leading the charge on this, then good for him.”

More people want to find him online, says Robin Goad of Hitwise…

while he reports on falling markets, his own stock is looking like a good bet. As the chart below illustrates, UK Internet searches for ‘robert peston’ have shot up over the last month.

…which prompts a Media Guardian article on a similar theme, followed by a light piece about Peston’s potential rivals.

Journalists and media-watchers have also had the chance to read interview profiles of Peston in The Independent and The Guardian. Both allude to his contacts and brilliant scoops, of course — but don’t address directly how far he’s managing to steer the narrow course between reporter of scoops and cypher.

Footnote: Yesterday I read Peston’s blog post and not much later listened to his analysis piece on the 6pm Radio 4 news, and realised they were the same thing. So posting scripts is one way to do it, to answer Robin Goad’s query of how Peston was broadcasting frequently and

somehow also finding time update his blog daily with analysis of the latest episode in the ongoing saga of the financial crisis

I doubt I’m the first to realise this.