The Art and Science of Data-Driven Journalism

On Data in the Media

In many ways, journalists have been engaged in gathering trustworthy data and publishing it for as long as journalism itself has been practiced. The need for reported accuracy about the world is part of the origin story of newspapers five centuries ago in Renaissance Europe. These newsletters had historical antecedents in the Acta Diurna (daily gazette) of the Roman Empire and the tipao (literally, “reports from the official residences”) of the Han dynasty in China hundreds of years prior, where governments produced and circulated news of military campaigns, politics, trials, and executions.Five centuries ago, Italian merchants commissioned and circulated handwritten newsletters that reported news of economic conditions, from the cost of commodities to the disruption of trade by revolutions, wars, disease, or severe weather. The printed versions that followed in the 17th century, once the cost of paper fell and printing presses proliferated, included these same basic lists of data, as did the printed newsbooks that circulated in the next century. After Scottish engineer and political economist William Playfair invented graphical methods for displaying statistics in 1786, periodicals began to use line graphs, bar charts, pie charts, and circle graphs.“As technology got better in the late 18th century and readers started demanding a different kind of information, the data that appeared in newspapers got more sophisticated and was used in new ways,” said Scott Klein. “Data became a tool for middle-class people to use to make decisions and not just as facts to deploy in an argument, or information useful to elite business people.”By the end of the 19th century, statistics were a part of stories in many newspapers, whether they appeared as figures, lists, or raw data about commodities or athletics that readers could pore over and consult themselves. Long before stock market data systems went electronic, newspapers published prices to investors. Dow Jones & Company began publishing stock market averages in 1884 and continues to do so today in both print and online via the Wall Street Journal.