Data journalism: Revolutionary, or clickbait?

Data journalism has certainly opened a host of doors for journalism. Blogs and sites like FiveThirtyEight by Nate Silver and The Upshot by The New York Times have revolutionized how we not only produce content as journalists, but how our audience consumes them.

I found a considerably poignant graphic by The Upshot demonstrating this phenomenon. Titled “Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.?”, the article examines each county within the U.S. on six main points:

  1. Education
  2. Median household income
  3. Unemployment rate
  4. Disability rate
  5. Life expectancy & obesity

And here’s the result:

Screenshot from The Upshot

Screenshot from The Upshot. Orange means “doing worse,” and blue means “doing better.”

The map is incredibly user friendly, and much more interactive than anything in print could ever be. If you hover over each county, an image will pop up with a detailed description of the stats collected from that individual county.

Screenshot from The Upshot

Screenshot from The Upshot

The story goes on to include a list of the top 10 counties in the country they deem as “the hardest to live in,” along with a photo gallery of to compliment the story. The photo gallery is expected if this were simply a traditional piece of journalism. But, with the added influence of data with the interactive graph, it’s beneficial to add a “face” to the data — which is something journalists often do. (The first “traditional” story that comes to mind is Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “AIDS in the Heartland,” which used written word and photo to put a face to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.)

The author of the piece also includes the fact that the team wished to use income mobility as a unit of measure, but couldn’t find enough data for it to be telling for their graph. Though it’s a small statement, this parenthetical made me trust the data and the work done by The Upshot even more.

Over the past few years is how headlines have become “clickbait,” in the form of questions or ambiguous phrasing. Some data driven content,

Screenshot from FiveThirtyEight

Screenshot from FiveThirtyEight

including this Upshot piece, does just that, while others, like the fluff piece by FiveThirtyEight to the right, may simply be just a good conversation starter. Since clickbait and data journalism are online phenomenons, it’s easy for them to overlap.

But maybe we don’t need to take ourselves that seriously. Though I turn to the New York Times for hard-hitting news, perhaps I’d rather read something lighter — about SNL — that includes quality data work, but also a fun read.

That’s what data journalism and online tools can do: create more mediums and outlets for journalists to get creative — and for audiences to explore.

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