The power of numbers

The power of data and statistics during the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19.

The current coding screen of data journalist, William Wolfe-Wylie, as he works from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy William Wolfe-Wylie

Data and statistics have been the most vital type of journalism needed over the last several months as the world battles with the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. As the pandemic brings a great amount of uncertainty, the public relies on journalists for a better understanding of what tomorrow could bring. The job of a journalist is crucial – creating a bridge to connect the public and the world around them.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has taken the world by storm, changing people’s routines and lifestyle. The public has no choice but to put their hope in the data and statistics given to them by their local government and news outlets.

Data journalism is a type of storytelling that uses the power of numbers through spreadsheets, charts, graphs and infographics to tell a compelling story. By incorporating statistics into a news story, it gives the public better insight into where the information is coming from and allows them to better understand how the story was written.

“I also find that data lets you get at a kind of truth that you can’t usually arrive at in journalism,” said Tom Cardoso, a data journalist and crime and justice reporter for The Globe and Mail. He went on to explain the significance of data journalism which led him to branch off into this career path years ago.

“Not to say that data is truth because it certainly isn’t, you can manipulate data to do whatever you want it to do. But it is a form of looking at the world that you don’t really have access to otherwise,” Cardoso said.

William Wolfe-Wylie, a senior developer interactives and data journalist at CBC News, says that Canada is behind at managing data in comparison to other countries. Data that has already been published for public consumption has constant updates after the fact, making the data released unreliable. His takeaway to aid the public during this time when information could be misreported is by averaging the numbers during the pandemic and by explaining what those numbers mean to the public.

“Look at Japan, look at South Korea, look at Vietnam, look at Hong Kong, the data gathering that they are doing is leading the world and Canada is submitting data from public health units to the federal government by fax, and they’re hiring people to do data entry from faxes, to get the numbers right,” Wolfe-Wylie said.

Valérie Ouellet, a senior data journalist at CBC News, agreed with Wolfe-Wylie’s observations in an interview with The Toronto Observer. She states that although data reporters were aware of this problem for a long time, the public is now finding out that big data collection systems are “decentralized”, where simple questions could take a long time to get answered.

In response to how they battle with not only informing the public of potential data gaps but also combating the increase of fake news reports, Ouellet says,

“We’re seeing more fake news than ever and if we, at least in my eyes as a data reporter, if we don’t know something right now and if the government doesn’t know something right now, when it comes to COVID, it is our job as reporters to let Canadians know that this isn’t something we’re not looking into, but it doesn’t exist. So a lot of my reporting is around that. And a lot of my reporting is on the vetting of data,” she said.

“Everything feels urgent, everything feels like we have to be reporting on anything and everything right now. And to want to tell these stories and not being able to because the numbers aren’t reliable is heartbreaking as a reporter,” Ouellet said.

As the world continues to battle COVID-19, journalists and the public understand how important data quality is when it comes to storytelling. Data journalists are not only responsible to report on the world around them, but they must thoroughly check their sources, vet their data and dig for the stories they find within the numbers.

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Posted: Jul 6 2020 11:00 am
Filed under: COVID-19 Features Living Room Newsroom News