For the last five to ten years, the phrase “data-driven journalism” has been popping up more and more frequently. There are many reasons for this, from mainstream media sources trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors, to more readily available data sets. What is data-driven journalism—and why should PR pros care?
What data-driven journalism is
The simple definition of data-driven journalism is the use of raw data to ground a news story. Journalists have long been trained to ask the who/what/when/where/how/why questions of officials, witnesses, and others involved in a story to inform reporting.
Data-driven journalism works differently because the resulting story is informed by the processing and analysis of raw data, which is then sometimes augmented with interviews. Oftentimes these stories include graphs or the ability on the part of the reader to interact with the data, such as this piece from the Washington Post that allows readers to see where they fall in the definition of middle-class incomes, when adjusted for geographic region. Or, this example, showing how your area would be affected by a Hurricane-Harvey level downpour, which uses elevation data and addresses to assess the flood threat posed.
Using data as the focus of a news story is of course not new. What is new is the ready availability of large data sets, the access to computing power that can process information quickly, and software tools that make analysis and visualization easier than ever before. What used to take a large team of researchers a great deal of time to pull together—not to mention the journalist writing the story and graphics to illustrate—can now be handled by a significantly smaller team on a much tighter timeline. A newsroom with a few app developers on staff has a leg up on the competition.
Data drives clicks
Much of the recent surge in attention to data-driven journalism has been fueled by the success of a few sites that really focused on using data to frame stories. One of the sites that truly harnessed the power behind this approach is the blog FiveThirtyEight. While it is most closely associated with political poll analysis, the site also applies its number-crunching data-driven expertise to sports, economics, and culture.
The sporting section of most major dailies has historically been a treasure trove of data. I’m not even going to pretend to understand much of it, but talk to sports fans and they can usually recite volumes of statistics from RBIs to average free-throw percentages to whether a horse is a mudder or not, depending on which sports they follow.
Economic reporting also has historically made use of data analysis. What is different is using now far more readily available data to craft news stories over a much wider array of topics, from weather to purchasing trends. Back in 2014, a USA Today piece interviewed Alexander Howard, a data journalist and fellow with the Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who pointed out that the internet is “awash” in opinion—leaving a wide opening for journalism grounded in hard data.
This has proved to be an insightful prediction, and most major media outlets now feature data-focused stories on a regular basis, and these pieces get shared. Graphs, charts, and interactive tools are very “shareable” features, which is part of the new calculus by which the success of a story or journalist are now judged.
Why data-driven journalism matters to PR
To put it very succinctly—almost anything that matters to journalists matters to PR professionals. The fields are so closely tied together that any substantial industry changes from employment to methods of communication in one field will affect the other. So, when journalists prepare and research stories differently, as they do with data-driven journalism, PR professionals need to be aware of these changes and be ready to adapt. Data-driven journalism means we need to do data-drive public relations.
This means that pitches should be developed using data as the primary focus to illustrate the story, and make the raw data accessible to the reporter you are pitching—if at all possible.
Data-driven PR means that PR practitioners need to get comfortable with identifying the relevant data sets for the clients with whom they are working. It also means that they must be proficient at analyzing data, and translating the results into either written or graphical descriptions. If some of this sounds like PR measurement…well, it is related. The ability to research and locate relevant data, review and process it for findings, and translate those results into actionable analysis are now core duties of a modern PR practitioner, for both internal and external reasons.
There’s another side to this from the PR angle, and that is about being prepared when speaking to journalists. Even if you didn’t pitch a story using data, bear in mind that it’s entirely possible that the journalist you pitched does have access to relevant data—and that might come up in an interview. No CEO likes the “gotcha” questions that sometimes surface in an interview, but the really deadly ones are going to be questions that have surfaced when a journalist reviews raw data. So, a big part of data-driven PR is knowing how to use that to prepare for data-driven journalism interviews.
It’s not a recent or even that new of a way of reporting, but it is becoming more and more of the norm. Embrace data-driven PR, and get those Excel spreadsheets going.