What can data journalism do for me?

You almost certainly didn’t come to J-school to do math. So why should you want to learn about data journalism?

Presumably you did come here for some of these reasons:

My job, over the four weeks in which we’ll work together, is to convince you that acquiring some basic skills with data can help you achieve those goals.

At the very least, data can provide valuable context for any story. In some cases, it can be where you find the idea for a story in the first place. It can also expose when fallible or manipulative human sources are giving you false information: If you don’t want to be bamboozled by statistics, you need to be able to make sense of the data for yourself.

But data journalism isn’t a skill to be practised in isolation. I want you to think of data as just another source of information: like public records, and like the people you interview. Indeed, I’m going to encourage you to think in terms of “interviewing” data, and show you how to ask questions of a dataset.

The data frame of mind

Some good news: This is not rocket science!

Working with data needn’t be mysterious or daunting. If you think clearly, get to know the data you’re working with, and apply the basic skills we’ll cover in the coming weeks, you’ll be able to use data to become a better journalist.

Data journalism is just another tool in the modern journalist’s toolbox — I’d argue an essential one. To put that another way, it’s the journalism part of data journalism that really matters.

So I’m going to encourage you to develop a data frame of mind. Rather then being an afterthought, researched when an editor asks if you’ve got a chart to go with that story, I want you to put it front-and-center when you start your reporting: As well as thinking about who you need to speak to, think about what sources of data are available, and how you can ask questions of that data that will inform the rest of your reporting.

Don’t drown your audience in a sea of statistics

A common mistake made by reporters starting to work with data is to throw lots of numbers into their stories. This is rarely enlightening and usually off-putting. The goal of working with data is for you to find new stories, or gain a deeper understanding of what your’re covering. When you tell those stories, use only the numbers that are necessary to get the point across.

The data we will use today

Download the data for this session from here, unzip the folder and place it on your desktop. It contains the following files:

These files are in CSV format, which stands for comma-separated values; they have a .csv extension. These are plain text files, in which columns in the data are separated by commas. CSV is a common format for storing and exchanging data. Values that are intended to be treated as text, rather than numbers, are often enclosed in quote marks.

We’ll also work in later weeks with data in Excel spreadsheet format, with the extension .xls or .xlsx.

Here is what the richmond_collisions.csv file looks like when you open it in a text editor.

When you ask for data, requesting it as CSVs or other plain text files is a good idea, as just about all software that handles data can export and import data as text. (If a government agency tells you that they cannot export data from their systems as text files, they are almost certainly mistaken, or lying!) You will also find that many online databases provide data for download in this format.

The characters used to separate the columns in a text file, called “delimiters,” may vary. a .tsv extension, for instance, indicates that the variables are separated by tabs. More generally, text files may have the extension .txt.

Get to know your data

Before attempting to analyze a dataset, it’s important to know what, exactly, you’re working with. So the first thing you should do with any data is open it up in a spreadsheet, and make sure you understand how it is structured.

Go to your Google Drive account. Now select NEW>Google Sheets. In the spreadsheet, select File>Import... from the top menu, and at the next dialog box, select the Upload tab:

Navigate to the file richmond_collisions.csv and complete the import.

In Google Sheets, the file should look like this:

The top row should be treated as a header row. So drag the gray divider at the base of the empty cell at top left, between column A and row 1, like this:



Select the header row by clicking the number 1 at the left, and then type ⌘-B to make the headers bold. Notice how the header row now remains in place at the top of the screen as you scroll up and down through the data.

Types of data: categorical vs. continuous

Tables of data consist of a series of “variables,” which are simply measurements or attributes of all of the “records” in the dataset. For example, school students might gather data about themselves for a class project, noting their gender and eye color, and height and weight. Here, each student is a record in the data, for which there will be a value for gender, eye color, height, and weight.

But there’s an important difference between gender and eye color, called “categorical” variables, and height and weight, termed “continuous.”

There’s a third type of data we often need to consider: date and time. Perhaps the most common task in data journalism is to consider how a variable or variables have changed over time.

Know the variables in your data, and how they are coded

Datasets will usually contain a mixture of categorical, continuous, and date/time variables.

The Richmond traffic accidents data is in a typical layout, with each row in the data representing an individual collision, each of which has a unique code, its CASEID. Having a unique ID for each record in a dataset is good practice.

Here, each of the columns in the data is a separate variable.

Don’t assume, however, that every number in a dataset represents a continuous variable. Text descriptions can make datasets unwieldy, so database managers often adopt simpler codes, which are often be numbers, to store categorical data.

Looking at the first few columns, YEAR_ is fairly obviously a date-related variable, while the longitudes and latitudes (POINT_Y and POINT_X) for each collision, and the numbers of people KILLED or INJURED, are continuous variables.

But the other columns in this view, including DAYWEEK and CRASHSEV are actually categorical variables, coded as numbers.

Like this example, many datasets are hard to understand without their supporting documentation. So each time you acquire a dataset, make sure you also obtain any documents/descriptions that are necessary to interpret it. These might be called the “codebook,” “data dictionary,” or “record layout.” Whatever they are called, you will need to understand all of the variables in the data, and how they are coded.

Here is the codebook for the Richmond traffic accident data. Notice, for example, how the day of the week and the severity of the collision are coded:

Is your data wide or long?

Often, especially if you are working with data over time, the data you obtain may not be in the format above, with one variable in each column.

Here, for example, is some data downloaded from the World Bank’s data site on the value of high-technology exports for different countries and groups of countries over time, expressed in current U.S. dollars. There are four variables in this data, which I’ve color-coded to make them easier to spot:

The variables are:

While this “wide” data format makes the spreadsheet easier for people to scan, most software for data analysis and visualization wants the data in a neat “long” format, with one variable in each column, like this:

So you may need to convert data from wide to long format. We will learn how to do this in Week 2.

How do I interview data? The basic operations

There are many sophisticted statistical methods for crunching data, beyond the scope of these classes. But the majority of a data journalist’s work involves the following simple operations:

We’ll return to these basic operations with data repeatedly over the coming weeks, as we pose questions of various datasets.

Working with categorical data

You might imagine that there is little that you can do with categorical data alone, but it can be powerful, and can also be used to create new continuous variables.

The most basic operation with categorical data is to group and aggregate it by counting the number of records that fall into each category. This gives a table of “frequencies.” Often these are divided by the total number of records, and then multiplied by 100 to show them as percentages of the total.

Here is an example, showing data on the racial and ethnic identities of residents of Oakland, from the 2010 Census:

(Source: American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau)

Creating frequency counts from categorical data creates a new continuous variable — what has changed is the level of analysis. In this example, the original data would consist of a huge table with a record for each person, noting their racial/ethnic identity as categorical variables; in creating the frequency table shown here, the level of analysis has shifted from the individual to the racial/ethnic group.

Working with continuous data: consider the distribution

When handling continuous data, there are more possibilities for aggregation than simply counting: You can add the numbers to give a total, for example, or calculate an average.

But summarizing continuous data in a single value inevitably loses a lot of information held in variation within the data. Understanding this variation may be key to working out the story the data may tell, and deciding how to analyze and visualize it. So often the first thing a good data journalist does when examining a dataset is to chart the distribution of each continuous variable. You can think of this as the “shape” of the dataset, for each variable.

Many variables, such as human height and weight, follow a “normal” distribution. If you draw a graph plotting the range of values in the data along the horizontal axis (also known as the X axis), and the number of individual data points for each value on the vertical or Y axis, a normal distribution gives a bell-shaped curve:

(Source: edited from Wikimedia Commons)

This type of chart, showing the distribution as a smoothed line, is known as a “density plot.”

In this example, the X axis is labeled with multiples of a summary statistic called the “standard deviation.” This is a measure of the spread of the data: if you extend one standard deviation either side of the average, it will cover just over 68% of the data points; two standard deviations will cover just over 95%. In simple terms, the standard deviation is a single number that summarizes whether the curve is tall and thin, or short and fat.

Sometimes, however, it’s very clear just from looking at the shape of a dataset that it is not normally distributed. Here, for example, is the distribution of Major League Baseball salaries at the start of the 2014 season, drawn as columns in increments of $500,000. This type of chart is called a “histogram.”

(Source: Peter Aldhous, data from the Lahman Baseball Database)

This distribution for this labor market is highly “skewed.” Almost half of the players were paid less than $1 million, while there are just a handful of players who were paid more than $20 million; the highest-paid was pitcher Zack Grienke, paid $26 million by the Los Angeles Dodgers. If you wanted to write a story about the lifestyle of a “typical” baseball player, who would you choose?

As you think about data in your beats of technology, labor, gentrification, and local reporting, remember that almost all economic data is highly skewed. In general, there are a lot of “have nots” (or at least “have littles”) at the bottom end of the distribution, and a long tail with a only few “have a lots” at the top.

Beyond the “average”: mean, median, and mode

Most people know how to calculate an average: add everything up, and divide this sum by the total number of values. Statisticians call this aggregate measure the “mean,” and for normally distributed data, it sits right on the top of the bell curve.

The mean is just one example of what statisticians call a “measure of central tendency.” And for skewed data like our baseball salaries, it may not be the most useful aggregation of the data.

The most common alternative is the “median,” which is the number that sits in the middle, when all the values are arranged in order. (If you have an even number of values, and no single number occupies the middle position, it would be the average of the two middle values.)

Notice how leading media outlets, such as The Upshot at The New York Times, often use medians, rather than means, in graphics summarizing skewed distributions, such as incomes or house prices. Here is an example from April 2014:

(Source: The Upshot, The New York Times)

Statisticians also sometimes consider the “mode,” which is the value that appears most frequently in the dataset.

Look at the distribution

In your Google Drive account, upload the file mlb_salaries_2014.csv in a new Google Sheet, and create a header row as before:

Notice that column H contains the salary of each player in millions of dollars, with the header salary_mil.

Select this column by clicking the letter H, then from the top menu select Insert>Chart.... The default chart type should be a histogram showing the distribution of salaries:

Calculate mean, median, and mode

Now create three new column headers: mean, median, and mode:

To run calculations in a spreadsheet we need to use formulas, which all start with the = symbol.

In the first cell of the mean column enter the following formula, which calculates the mean (called AVERAGE in a spreadsheet) of all of the values in column H. The colon tells the formula to use all of the values in the range from H2 to H747.


Or alternatively, to select all the values in column H without having to define their row numbers:


Now calculate the median salary:


And the mode:


Across Major League Baseball at the start of the 2014 reason, the mean salary was just under $4 million. But when summarizing a distribution in a single value, we usually want to give a “typical” number. Here the mean is inflated by the vast salaries paid to a handful of star players, and may be a bad choice. The median salary of $1.5 million gives a more realistic view of what a typical MLB player was paid.

The mode is less commonly used, but in this case also tells us something interesting: it was $500,000, a sum earned by 35 out of the 746 players. This was the minimum salary paid under 2014 MLB contracts, which explains why it turns up more frequently than any other number. A journalist who considered the median, mode, and full range of the salary distribution may produce a richer story than one who failed to think beyond the “average.”

Spreadsheet functions

In the formulas above, AVERAGE, MEDIAN and MODE are functions. They act on the data specified in the brackets.

Notice as you start to type a formula that Google Sheets will suggest functions that you can use:

And when it’s clear which function you are using, Google Sheets gives some hints on how it should be used:

Here is a full list of the functions available in Google Sheets. As you can see, there are many.

Rounding: Avoid spurious precision

Often when you run calculations on numbers, you’ll obtain precise answers that can run to many decimal places. But think about the precision with which the original numbers were measured, and don’t quote numbers that are more precise than this. When rounding numbers to the appropriate level of precision, if the next digit is four or less, round down; if it’s six or more, round up. There are various schemes for rounding if the next digit is five, and there are no further digits to go on: I’d suggest rounding to an even number, which may be up or down, as this is the international standard in computing.

To round the mean value for the baseball salary data to two decimal places, use the following formula in an empty cell in the spreadsheet:


Here, the value of 2, after the comma, defines the number of decimal points to round to. (Similarly, 0 would round to the nearest whole number, -1 to the nearest 10, -2 to the nearest hundred, and so on).

You can also run functions on functions. Notice that you get the same result if you edit the original formula to the following:


This formula runs the ROUND function on the result of the AVERAGE function.

(As we will see in Week 2, you can also format numbers in a spreadsheet so that they display with rounding, without changing the underlying data.)

Sampling and margins of error

Only sometimes is it possible to obtain and analyze all of the data, like we just did for the 2014 baseball salaries.

We’re now at the height of election season, and polls will be a staple of political news reports until election day, November 8. Polls are derived by asking a sample of people their opinion on an issue, or how they intend to vote.

For a sample to be valid, it must obey a simple statistical rule: Every member of the group to which you wish to generalize the results of your analysis must have an equal chance of being included.

Entire textbooks have been written on sampling methods. The simplest form is random sampling — such as when numbers are written on pieces of paper, put into a bag, shaken up, and then drawn out one by one. Opinion pollsters may generate their samples by randomly generating valid telephone numbers, and calling those numbers.

But there are other methods, and the important thing is not that a sample was derived randomly, but that it is representative of the group from which it is drawn. In other words, sampling needs to avoid systematic bias that makes particular people more or less likely to be included.

Be especially wary of using data from any sample that was not selected to be representative of a wider group. Media organizations frequently run informal online “polls” to engage their audience, but they tell us little about public opinion, as people who happened to visit a news website and cared enough to answer the questions posed may not be representative of the wider population.

To have a good chance of being representative, samples must also be sufficiently large. If you randomly sample ten people, for instance, chance effects mean that you may draw a sample that contains eight women and two men, or perhaps no men at all. Sample 1,000 people from the same population, however, and the proportions of men and women sampled won’t deviate so far from an even split.

This is why polls should give a “margin of error,” which is a measure of the uncertainty that arises from taking a relatively small sample. These margins of error are usually derived from a range of values that statisticians call the “95% confidence interval.” This means that if the same population were sampled repeatedly, the results would fall within this range of values 95 times out of 100.

Here is a snapshot of polls for the presidential election, from RealClearPolitics on August 4, in the wake of the party conventions:

(Source: RealClearPolitics)

Notice the sample sizes — either of Registered Voters (RV), or people considered to be Likely Voters (LV), and the figures for Margin of Error (MoE).

The Economist/YouGov poll gave Hillary Clinton a lead of three percentage points, 46% to 43%, but the margin of error was 4.1 percentage points. What this means is that the pollsters were 95% confident from their sample that Clinton’s support lay between 41.9% and 50.1% (46%, plus or minus 4.1 percentage points), while Donald Trump’s support lay between 38.9% and 47.1% (43%, plus or minus 4.1 percentage points) — not exactly clear cut.

When dealing with polling and survey data, look for the margins of error. Be careful not to mislead your audience by making a big deal of differences that may just be due to sampling error. Consider quoting polling averages for a defined period, which are likely to be more reliable, as it’s unlikely that all of the polls will be affected by sampling error in exactly the same way.

Here is a simple web app, from SurveyMonkey, that allows you to estimate the margin of error given the sample size, the confidence level, and the size of the population. There are about 225 million eligible U.S. voters. While fewer will be registered and fewer still will actually vote, see what happens if you put 225,000,000 into the population box, and 500 or 1,000 into the sample size box. A larger sample will give a smaller margin of error.

This app, meanwhile, calcuates the sample size needed to obtain results within a given margin of error.

Be skeptical of your data: Ask what’s really being measured

Data can be seductive, but you need to approach it skeptically, just like you would any oher source.

Always question how the data was obtained, and what is actually being measured. Even commonly quoted numbers like the unemployment rate depend on assumptions that can be questioned. As this graph shows, the Bureau of Labor Statistics actually has a range of measures of unemployment:

(Source: Peter Aldhous, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

This what those measures mean:

So what is the best measure of unemployment? That may depend on the story you are trying to tell.

And remember that summarizing the data with a single number can mask the most striking stories

Always think about how to filter, group, and aggregate your data to tell stories that are relevant to your particular audience, or groups within it. While many news stories talk about the unemployment rate, unemployment is experienced very differently by different parts of the population.

The following charts break down the unemployment rate (U3) over the years by sex, race, and age group:

(Source: Peter Aldhous, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data)

Per what? Working with rates and percentages

Often it doesn’t make much sense to consider raw numbers. There are more murders in Oakland (population from 2010 U.S. Census: 390,724) than in Orinda (2010 population: 17,643). But that’s a fairly meaningless comparison, unless we level the playing field by correcting for the size of the two cities. For fair and meaningful comparisons, data journalists often need to work with rates: per capita, per thousand people, and so on.

In simple terms, a rate is one number divided by another number. The key word is “per.” Per capita means “per person,” so to calculate a per capita figure you must divide the total value by the population size. But remember that most people find very small numbers hard to grasp: 0.001 and 0.0001 look similarly small at a glance, even though the first is ten times as large as the second. So when calculating rates for rare events like murders, per capita may not be a good choice. You may need to consider the rate per 1,000 people, per 10,000 people, or even per 100,000 people: simply divide the numbers as before, then multiply by the “per” figure.

In addition to leveling the playing field to allow meaningful comparisons, rates can also help bring large numbers, which are again hard for most people to grasp, into perspective: it means little to most people to be told that the annual GDP of the United States is almost $17 trillion, but knowing that GDP per person is just over $50,000 is easier to comprehend.

Percentages are just a special case of rates, meaning “per hundred.” So to calculate a percentage, you divide one number by another and then multiply by 100.

Doing simple math with rates and percentages

Often you will need to calculate percentage change. The formula for this is:

(new value - old value) / old value * 100

Here / means “divided by” and * means “multiplied by.” If you were using this formula in a spreadsheet, you would start with =. The brackets around the first part of the calculation show that it should be conducted first, before dividing the result by the old value.

Percentage increases are hard to comprehend once the number is doubled or more. Doubling corresponds to a 100% increase, tripling to a 200% increase, and so on. So rather than saying something increased by 125%, perhaps say that the number “more than doubled,” and give the before and after values.

Also, remember that a large percentage increase on a small number still gives a small number. If there were just five burglaries in a neighborhood in one year, and six the next, that’s a 20% increase in burglaries, which sounds alarming, until you’re told the actual numbers. So always consider when it’s helpful to tell your reader the actual numbers, rather than rattling off percentage changes that could be misleading.

Sometimes you may need to compare two rates or percentages. For example, if 50 out of 150 black mortgage applicants in a given income bracket are denied a mortgage, and 300 out of 2,400 white applicants in the same income bracket are denied a mortgage, the percentage rates of denial for the two groups are:


50 / 150 * 100 = 33.3%


300 / 2,400 * 100 = 12.5%

You can divide one percentage or rate by the other, but be careful how you describe the result:

33.3 / 12.5 = 2.664

You can say from this calculation that black applicants are about 2.7 times as likely to be denied loans as whites. But even though the Associated Press style guide doesn’t make the distinction, don’t say black applicants are about 2.7 times more likely to be denied loans. Strictly speaking, more likely refers to following calculation:

(33.3 - 12.5) / 12.5 = 1.664


Further reading

Sarah Cohen: Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News

Philip Meyer: Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods