Opinion, Thoughts

The Devil in the Data

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“What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it.” – Hans Rosling.

New beginnings await. I have been offered a place on a PGCert in data journalism at Birmingham City University starting this September. Since beginning to explore the possibility of pursuing journalism as a vocation for almost a year, two doors recently popped wide open for me to begin studying the subject part-time. After giving it some careful, prayerful thought, I believe that the time has come to walk through one of these portals and embrace the monumental change it represents.

I have opted to study with Paul Bradshaw on the data journalism program at BCU for a wide variety of reasons. These include (in no particular order): Multiple positive testimonials and recommendations I have gleaned from current and former students; the specific focus on data and investigative journalism; a diverse selection of optional modules should I progress to the full MA program after a year; great industry links and opportunities for work placements at home and abroad; the excellent breadth of expertise and experience offered by the faculty at BCU; and the simple fact that the PGCert will initially have a lighter and more flexible workload than a full MA, meaning I can fit it around work and family commitments more easily during the next academic year.

I have also already had an overwhelmingly positive, encouraging experience when interacting with Paul Bradshaw & BCU thus far. This began before I had even applied for the course, let alone been given an offer. First impressions really do make a difference.

Rabbit holes & Factfulness

I would have written this post sooner, but sometimes life throws unpleasant curve balls in our direction. Having being caught off guard by just such an unexpected occurrence in recent weeks, which has thankfully been resolved for the time being, I was reminded yet again that I have already been blessed from above with an embarrassment of riches. Life is too short, and I want to make the most of every opportunity.

Alongside this broader sense of urgency to cherish each mundane moment I have been given, receiving an unconditional offer from BCU to study data journalism feels like a green light to plummet down the rabbit hole and see where this new sense of calling leads. As my Irish grandmother often said: “Thanks be to God”, for all of the above and more.

As part of my preparation for the data journalism course I have begun, coincidentally, to slowly read two books in tandem: Factfulness by Hans Rosling & The Curious Journalists’ Guide to Data by Jonathan Stray. Both books emphasise the importance of statistics and the art of interpreting them in a meaningful and accurate way in order to develop a coherent worldview. They have already proven to be an eye-opening introduction to the elusive reality behind the often fictitious world we tend to perceive or imagine exists out there (somewhere!).

As a Christian, and a recent MA Theology graduate, I can’t help but see parallels with the kind of epistemology hinted at by the writer of St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, which incidentally inspired the title of my old blog (Cracked looking glass = i.e. At best we see an inaccurate, broken reflection/refraction of reality):

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians ‭13:12‬ ‭(NRSV)‬‬

As partial as human knowledge will always be, I have been struck by the positive aspects of embracing this kind of realism about the limits of our understanding, and how it can be applied to the old fashioned ideal of journalism as the art of truth-telling and holding power to account. Both of these pursuits require data.

To succeed in such a vocation, I imagine any credible 21st century journalist could do worse than to get to grips with facts, figures, reliable statistical analysis, a capacity to read widely enough to be a bona fide jack of all trades who can quickly verify sources, adopt diverse, flexible, and robust investigative methodologies, routinely sharpen their critical thinking skills, and crucially: Blend all this and more together with the ability to accurately interpret and creatively communicate complex data sets and/or concepts to a broad audience. Straightforward enough, no? Time to get to work!

As daunting this path ahead may seem, I feel enormously excited about turning my hand to acquiring these and any other necessary skills to become an investigative data journalist. Counteracting the worst elements of our current post-truth, social-media saturated, fake-news-infused world, which is all too often dominated by a dubious blend of surveillance capitalism, partisan political propaganda, and myriad forces seemingly beyond our control (i.e. Coronavirus/climate change), will undoubtedly require a multifaceted approach. Even if I can only manage to play the smallest of small parts in contributing to this lofty goal, I will at least have done something useful with the gifts I have been given.

A Corona of Stories, Voices, and Contexts

There are so many stories yet to be written, so many voices yet to be heard, and so many ‘explainer’/‘fact-check’ articles needed on a daily basis to demystify panic-worthy social media posts, and/or clarify the reality of any global event in the face of media sensationalism.

For example, on a personal level reading some real healthcare statistics can make quite a difference to an otherwise febrile state of mind when we receive distressing news about a friend, colleague, or family member who unexpectedly finds themselves battling with a serious illness. A Factfulness-led approach can work wonders if we can understand the real world statistics and/or probabilities of what might happen to them. Even the alarming spate of coronavirus epidemics can be helpfully contextualised by crunching and comparing some relevant numbers (e.g. present mortality rates Vs. seasonal flu, or something far more deadly like Ebola; at present, in terms of severity, Corona virus is > flu but considerably < Ebola).

If there is a devil in the deep blue sea, fear is undoubtedly a correlating factor in how it works against our better judgement. A rigorously rational, factful, statistically responsible approach to making sense of the world around us in order to dispel unfounded fears, stave off mass hysteria, and dismantle disinformation whilst helping the general public become more well informed about the partially perceptible reality we currently inhabit, is precisely the kind of data-driven journalism I want to learn to do. I can’t wait to get my teeth into this new discipline at BCU.

After all, to adapt a well known English idiom: The devil is in the data. Time to root him out.