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posted on 08 November 2015

Data Enabling A New Kind Of Journalism

from the Economics and Statistics Administration

-- this post authored by Eric Newburger - Senior Scientist for Data Training, Department of Commerce

Statistics in journalism have been around for a long time - most often associated with sports and financial stories. However, with new tools to help visualize complex statistics, data today is powering new and better ways to tell compelling stories.

Rainfall in California, three-year averages, October to September

One example was in The New York Times published over the summer about the impact of California's drought on the region's wildfires. The article, which features amazing photography and compelling stories of being on the frontlines of wildfire-fighting, is enhanced by data visualization that allows readers to digest the scope of the drought and the historic spread of wildfires in the region. The article includes data from the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with other federal datasets, to highlight the severe lack of rainfall in recent years. Another graphic, a map featuring U.S. Forest Service data on the exponential growth of dead trees in drought-stricken lands, helps readers understand what's fueling wildfire growth.

Last summer, officials recorded 110,000 tree deaths in that area of California.

Dead trees per acre 2014

When they returned to the same area this spring, they recorded 2.3 million tree deaths. In all, they identified 12.5 million dead trees in a million acres of California land.

Dead trees per acre in 2015

These visualization would not be possible without data collected by federal agencies. Data, which are now able to be unlocked using new and emerging technologies, including free online tools like D3, are opening up information in ways that haven't been conceived before.

Data sells. More and more stories today feature graphics that are based on data collected by federal sources - including population and economic information from the Census Bureau, weather data from NOAA and trade data from the International Trade Administration. Many new news sites, including fast-growing web-only publications like Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight, are making data journalism a centerpiece of their work. This has encouraged traditional newspapers to emphasize data in their stories. In fact, many of these news organizations are making substantial investments in personnel, including statisticians, data scientists and graphic designers, to help make their stories more data-focused.

With data becoming a bigger priority in news-gathering, journalists are now able to effectively couple captivating anecdotes with hard data, presented in ways that are accessible to the average reader, to transform stories from just entertaining to truly informative.

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