The pitiful cult of ‘data journalism’

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Times were that you could pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal and be simultaneously educated and entertained by their informative infographics, which were lovingly crafted from authoritative data and accompanied by judicious analysis. The key to success with these graphics was that they explained something about the data you might not have gleaned simply by looking at a column of numbers. The Economist, too, was pretty good at revealing trends and interesting correlations with clear, unfussy graphs.

Then something odd happened. The nationals started getting a taste for these fancy ways of explaining data. But in imitating the method, they forgot the purpose, and began to drizzle their pages in useless, stupid pie charts that added nothing to the written stories beside them. Were they just filler, to paper over declining ad sales? The question was asked at the time, and continues to be pertinent.

More likely is that the hubris of the newsroom – the “Who can do me one of those?” you so often hear from editors – led to generalist publications over-reaching themselves. Pick up any newspaper today – particularly, in the last half-decade, the Independent, and you’ll see that the results can be gruesome.

The apotheosis of the trend toward explaining everything as if to children is seen on the BBC, particularly during elections. You might think it normal that a broadcast medium would rely more heavily on visual help, but, apparently, the population of the United Kingdom is now so breathtakingly stupid that they cannot digest even the simplest percentage or set of figures without a gaudy illustration of it looming over the presenter. The visuals are rarely instructive, and usually distracting.

(As it happens, I have some sympathy with this view of the public as fucking morons. After all, our state schools have been overrun by evil mediocrities from the teaching unions who refuse to teach our children any actual facts or methods, preferring to endow them with vague “transferable skills” and the ability to apply a condom at age 11. It’s little wonder they struggle with visualizing numbers.)
But the cult of the infographic, patronising and infuriating though it may be, is only the tip of the iceberg when you begin to examine news reporting on the internet. Glance at any story that might conceivably be jazzed up for the simpletons with a splash of colour and a few gradients and, sure enough, you’ll find an invitation to “download the data” yourself. And, suddenly, we’re all journalists! Analysts! Researchers! Except, of course, that we – by which I mean you – are plainly not.

The devastation wreaked upon the fragile minds of amateur bloggers cannot be overstated. What a tizzy they get themselves into, desperately trying to wrap their heads around these mysterious and interminable sheets of figures! One need only perform a few cursory searches on Twitter to see the mental health case for discontinuing such services – not to mention the secondary benefit of denying ammo to tiresome Ben Goldacre wannabes.

Predictably, the newspaper that has embraced this awful fad most enthusiastically is Goldacre’s own, the terminally nerdy Guardian. Barely a national news story passes without some self-important twerp in coke-bottle spectacles popping up to trumpet a bizarre, tenuously-wrought socialist conclusion from his banal spreadsheet of already publicly available data on the newspaper’s hilariously misnamed Datablog.

Let us cast our eye over a few recent stories in this laughable arena. “Bestselling books of 2011: the top 5,000 listed,” offers one Datablog headline. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d get bored well before I got to 100. Who could possibly want this information? “UK plastic surgery statistics: breasts up, ears down,” says another. (I’ll admit to being mildly drawn by that one. But who knew there even was such a thing as verified UK plastic surgery statistics?) And from earlier this month: “Arctic swans arrival: when did the first Bewick’s [sic] get here?”

Riveting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Seriously, though: just who are these people downloading metadata about swan migration? Why should they care? And why is the general public being bothered with this nonsense? Well, the answer is quite simple: those responsible for producing it are invariably third-rate spreadsheet monkeys with comical pretensions to journalism: they rarely have sound judgment when it comes to newsworthiness.

Data reporters are the chartered accountants of the newsroom: snotty, spotty, uppity misfits, regarded disdainfully by their colleagues for their ludicrous sense of self-importance and the ease with which just about anybody could do their job. Dare, of course, to disagree with the inevitably right-on “interpretations” garnered from their facile number-crunching and these gargoyles take to Twitter like a flock of disfigured seagulls, squawking furiously at anyone with the temerity to “defy the data”.

Put simply, it’s a problem of education, as with so many things. The glib exegeses offered up by our friends with the high prescriptions are worthless because the reporters in question haven’t had the training of their American counterparts. That’s partly because the people who read British newspapers are themselves a bit dim and rather poorly educated, compared to the average reader of the Journal or the New York Times. So they’ve never demanded better.

It’s certainly a pity that the quality of data-driven journalism is so risibly poor in the mainstream press, especially during at a time of economic crisis when I, for one, would appreciate a bit of help in understanding the intricacies of global economics. But I’m not going to get that from the British media, which is hopelessly in hock to the pitiful, attention-seeking cult of superficial data journalism.

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