Today my Facebook page reminded me that it was exactly one year ago when my special report, A Crime Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in Milwaukee, was published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. At the time, I didn't really realize that that project was my first attempt at data journalism, but now after going through this MOOC and learning about the complexities of data journalism, I can see why I had such a difficult time taking on that project without any prior training in data-driven storytelling.
The free online MOOC class, "Data Exploration and Storytelling: Finding Stories in Data with Exploratory Analysis and Visualization" shed light on the different dynamics and processes that I went through last year but did not have a name for. Additionally, it provided a wealth of new knowledge, insight, tools and tips to inspire and begin to equip us with what we'll need to know to embark on our mission to attempt more serious data journalism this semester and in the future. At times it was overwhelming, but the content of the course was a great starting point that laid out different areas we can explore later on as we begin to do our own data journalism and not just watch videos about it.
The course exposed the intricacies, technicalities and complexities of data journalism, but more than anything, it showed me how similar it is to tell stories about data as it is to tell stories in a more traditional way about people or events. Time and time again, the course emphasized the importance of contextualizing data and stressed the severe implications of not doing so. As with any kind of reporting, the journalist has the responsibility to craft as accurate of a narrative as possible so as to not misrepresent people or reality. It is our job to seek to communicate truth to the best of our ability. Though numbers, statistics and other forms of data might seem able to make truthful storytelling more straightforward, this MOOC illustrated how easily data can be misunderstood, misrepresented or manipulated in a way that serves neither the reader nor the public in general. This will be essential to keep in mind for the remainder of the semester as well as well into the future as we become journalists and even just informed citizens.
One of my favorite takeaways from this MOOC that I will carry forward is the way that traditional, personal narrative reporting can complement and strengthen data journalism. I learned that data-driven stories can still have the powerful characters and everything that I love about storytelling, but the content of the story is just truly being driven by patterns and analyzed statistics instead of just individuals' experiences. I am inspired by ways that organizations like the Solutions Journalism Network use data to tell powerful stories that can affect positive social change, and I'm really intrigued by the potential that this form of storytelling has for our class and for all of us going forward.
Check out my week by week evaluation of the MOOC HERE!
I am a senior studying journalism and international affairs at Marquette University. I am a Milwaukee-dweller and a storyteller passionate about exploring the intersection between community-building and communication. I'd love for you to learn alongside me!