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Friday, March 28, 2014

A data point on explanatory journalism

In theory, I should love the emerging push for "explanatory journalism" and "data journalism" (whether those two things are distinct, overlapping or synonymous is something that may yet be further explained with data). I'm a journalist who likes data, who recently took Edward Tufte's information-presentation course, and who has placed a growing premium on empiricism over ideology in recent years.

Looking at FiveThirtyEight, I find the biggest problem is it's not as interesting as all the buzz and criticism around it would make you think it should be. Now, I recognize that I'm but a single data point, and that these are early days yet for data/explanatory journalism with FiveThirtyEight having just started publishing while Vox and the Upshot are still in the works or offering small previews. But still there are risks in the I'm-smart-and-will-explain-the-world-to-you approach. One is that it might come across as condescending (well, as my description suggests). Another is that it might be boring, in the same way that working on your taxes is boring or counting bristles* on your toothbrush is boring.

We'll see. But I can say that if someone were to do journalism on an ambitious scale that sorts out fact and plausible estimate from misinformation, speculation and hype on subjects such as the recent "NASA doomsday report" or whether the recent gravity wave data really mean there's a multiverse with "multiple copies of you," there could be a market for it. Doing that is not just a question of crunching numbers, and I'm not convinced detached neutrality is necessarily its only or best mode. Knowing and acknowledging your biases has much to be said for it, as well.

* - corrected from "thistles." What was I thinking?

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