March 17, 2014

FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven journalism organization: making data journalism cool

Nate Silver is a name that I learned and then forgot. He earned a lot of repute after predicting the results of the 2012 election with near perfection. Many praised it as miraculous, an accomplishment against all odds, but Silver says it was all just data.

"Certainly we had a good night. But [the prediction] was and remains a tremendously overrated accomplishment... It wasn't all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.

Instead our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media."

And it is because of Silver's discontent with some of the practices of the mainstream media that he is striking out with a venture in the field of data journalism.

FiveThirtyEight is the relaunch of Nate Silver's data-driven coverage with the backing of ESPN. The new site launched today (March 17) and, for a WordPress site, looks fantastic. Silver promises a broad coverage of topics in their subsections: politics, economics, science, life and sports.

FiveThirtyEight is now working with a team of 20 journalists. Silver says that though they're big on data, not all of their reporting will be driven by gritty statistics.

"By no means do we think that everything can be broken down into a formula or equation. On the contrary, one of our roles will be to critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage. At other times, we'll explore ways the consumers can use data to their advantage to level the playing field against corporations and governments."

Having done some data journalism work in David Herzog's class, Computer-Assisted Reporting, I have the utmost respect for Silver's revamped online publication. He points out common problems that we witness in the media everyday. As he points out in his opening article titled "What the Fox Knows," students that intend to major in journalism and communications have below-average scores in mathematics when entering college - myself included - and most students with strong math skills have more lucrative opportunities available to them than reporting. This leads to reporters who are, frankly, wrong.

Silver uses the example of sports reporters and coaches who rely on gut feelings and instincts instead of player stats in the style of Moneyball. He provides another example of political columnists and analysts who who spoke with certainty regarding Obama or Romney's inevitable win of the 2012 election, ignoring poll results and citing other irrelevant events or indicators. Haphazard suggestions of causation between unrelated things are a plague of the modern media. It's an ethically irresponsible form of reporting, because it alters readers'/viewers' opinions without basis in fact.

"In conventional journalism, predictions are often treated as a parlor game, involving little effort and
less accountability ... Predictions are usually outsourced to opinion journalists, who may have less subject-matter knowledge than reporters do."

So Silver decries these negative aspects of conventional journalism. It hits close to home as a student of traditional journalism turned digital, but he justifies his passion for data-driven journalism because of its superior predictive powers.

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But one of the potential advantages of data journalism is that it generalizes better than traditional approaches, particularly as data sets increase in scale to become larger and more complex."

As I mentioned, I am a student of data journalism - it's not my passion, but it's certainly worthy of study - and one of its biggest deficits is that it is often very, very boring. So how are Silver and company going to make big data relevant to an audience larger than other data journalists?

Silver says they're not going to "abandon the story form at FiveThirtyEight." Their stories will highlight individual cases and anecdotes as we're accustomed to in traditional media, but they aspire to put those isolated incidents into the larger context of the data available to them. As Silver explains, "sometimes it can be extremely valuable to explore an outlier in some detail." But those stories won't be sensationalized or used as indicators of a shocking new trend. "To classify these stories appropriately we'll have to do a lot of work in the background before we publish them."

Silver acknowledges two more important things about their new operation at FiveThirtyEight. First, that their work in data journalism is not a substitute for existing media outlets.

"Our methods are not meant to replace 'traditional' or conventional journalism. We have the utmost admiration for journalists who gather original information and report original stories."

Lastly, that there are sacrifices to be made in order to accomplish the kind of thorough, data-centric reporting that Silver and his staff strives for. In a journalistic market where breaking news is valuable and time is money, FiveThirtyEight will strive to be the tortoise in a market of hares.

"All of this takes time. That's why we've elected to sacrifice something else as opposed to accuracy or accessibility. The sacrifice is speed - we're rarely going to be the first organization to break news or to comment on a story."

And I am excited. This is the kind of complement that the media needs in order to effectively inform the public. I can't help but be inspired by Silver's success, driven by his dynamite 2012 predictions and the support of ESPN. It's a timely rise to the forefront at a time when the journalism industry is tumultuous and under fire. So congratulations, Nate Silver, on what I perceive as a successful site launch. I look forward to you and your staff "making the news a little nerdier."

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