Data: A Reporter’s Best Friend

Every modern journalist needs a certain set of key skills. Certainly you have to know your way around social media to publicize your work, but these days, you also need to be able understand and make use of data.

I hear the old-school journalists scoffing, "Data? Isn't that just a fancy word for facts?" Well, not exactly. Data came to the forefront in the most recent U.S. presidential election, especially because a former baseball stats geek named Nate Silver called the winner in the days prior to the election. For the second straight election, he was spot on.

Naturally, the Republicans didn't want to believe him. They said their internal polling showed that folks not picked up by the mainstream polls would tip the outcome in their favor. As recently as the week before the election, Republican pollsters were calling for a Romney landslide, but Silver stuck to his guns and by the time the night was over, Obama had won by an Electoral College landslide gaining 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. What's more, Silver called 50 out of 50 states. Whatever your politics, the numbers were clear, and with that election, Silver's reputation was cemented.

In fact, it was probably cemented long before that. Silver helped define modern baseball statistical analysis made popular in the book and subsequent movie Moneyball. After calling the 2008 election, Reuters reported that Penguin Group was so impressed, it signed Silver to a two-book contract worth more than $700,000. The New York Times signed a licensing deal with him to host his blog. This has paid off handsomely for the newspaper, as the blog became a popular landing spot for political junkies.

Journalists should be paying attention. You don't have to be a math genius to take advantage of data and use it to illustrate your stories. Some of the best coverage of this interminable election season was from sites such as Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog, RealClearPolitics, The Guardian, The Economist, and many others that took those numbers and created interesting visuals that gave people a view on the election they might not have otherwise seen in quite the same way.

The thing about data is that it gives stories weight. When you take the data and put it on a map or break it down in a chart or a graph, it gives readers something to hang your words upon that is just not possible otherwise. Data can also be mashed up in interesting ways using the data and a mapping program, for example, to display your data geographically.

I spent a lot of time on election night watching CNN where John King was breaking down the swing states such as Virginia, which polls showed to be a close race, but which King--using a giant map--narrowed in on population centers that tended to vote Democrat, and predicted Virginia would swing Obama's way. He was right.

Similarly, he showed that based on the counties that were left, it would be impossible for Romney to win Florida and Ohio. Florida wasn't official for a couple of days because it's Florida and the state seems incapable of counting votes in a timely manner, but when Ohio was called it put Obama over the top. CNN and other networks-including FOX-began calling the election for Obama. Republican operative Karl Rove chastised the FOX anchors on the set, insisting that Ohio could still swing Romney's way.

But FOX's data geeks were watching the same counties, and they too knew that there was really no way for Romney to win given the data. Rove was so upset, anchor Megyn Kelly went for a field trip to what they call "the Decision Desk," once again putting the data guys front and center.

There are lots of data stories out there from elections to surveys, from earnings reports to market share statistics. When it comes to numbers, there are always different angles to explore. The trick is to really dig into the data and find stories locked within the numbers, beyond the most obvious one everyone else is reporting.

The numbers have a tale to tell. You just have to figure out what it is and remember that data is the modern journalist's friend. Publications and individual journalists who figure out how to harness it are finding new ways to stay relevant, and that should be every news organization's goal.