Trend Alert: Big Data in Journalism

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As Big Data Emerges In Journalism, PR Should Take Note

If you work in public relations or corporate communications, get ready to hear a lot more about computer-assisted reporting, also called datajournalism. It’s the process of using large sets of data to aide in, and sometimes drive, reporting the news.

This big-data approach to storytelling is changing the face of journalism, and it will soon open up new doors for savvy public relations practitioners who understand the process.

Newsworthy events happen all of the time. Reporters are human; for all their collective skill, ability, and expertise, they are imperfect filters for the news. That’s the paradox of news: Just assume that the most newsworthy event happening today won’t be covered at all, because no one was able to recognize it as such.

Apply big data to the newsgathering process, however, and all of that changes. Computer-assisted reporting can automate fact-finding. As Chris Taggart, co-founder of OpenCorporates and datajournalism advocate, recently said, “If journalism is about telling a story that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to tell, then where is that going to be? That’s going to be in these large data sets, it’s going to be about combining this data set with that data set”

Derek Willis, a programmer/reporter for the New York Times, explains further:

For example, if a local congressman has received donations from executives of XYZ Corp. every March in previous election years, but not this year, then that’s potentially newsworthy; maybe XYZ isn’t giving as much, but maybe they no longer support the local politician, or are a bellwether of a lack of business support. In this case, the absence of data — something that’s very hard for people to spot [manually] in pages of filings — is the trigger event that can cause a reporter to follow up.

As much as journalists love to wax about serendipity, much of life is based on our habits and patterns, which are predictable enough to be tested against data. The same idea applies to scenarios that may not have happened in the past but could be defined and applied to the data. Reporters are testing out theories all the time, often by calling up sources and putting a question or theory out there. There’s no reason why we can’t enable the same ease of inquiry with data. In fact, it seems possible to do it on a much broader scale and in more precise ways.

This process actually works. “That’s how Willis learned earlier this month that a nonprofit had made an unusual $500,000 donation, which was quickly refunded, to a super PAC, [Political Action Committee],” wrote Poynter. “‘The Times’ software for processing Federal Election Commission [FEC] disclosures, which Willis built, alerts him when it spots potentially newsworthy events such as large donations, amendments to previous filings, and last-minute disclosures filed just before elections.”

Impact for PR Pros

These stories rely on the availability of large, reliable sets of data, which is what makes the emergence of computer-assisted reporting so exciting for public relations and communications.

Government regulators such as the FEC are voracious collectors of data, and sometimes media outlets have their own ways of capturing large sets of data for examination. This is largely where computer-assisted reporting has been getting its data. But companies that release news-making surveys, such as many of our clients, offer unique sets of data many big-data-using journalists could put to good use.

So, think about offering key publications the full set of data, under embargo, well in advance of a survey’s release. Explore options with editors and reporters who are savvy users of data. This approach can lead to partnerships with news organizations and increase the visibility of your client’s surveys and research.