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Data visualization

Telling bigger picture stories with big data

Maurice Tamman  Reporter/Editor, Enterprise Team

Maurice Tamman  Reporter/Editor, Enterprise Team

A unique combination of reporting instincts and technical skills is changing journalism.

Use of the term “Big Data” has exploded among managers and editors in newsrooms over the last four or five years, mirroring its use in the wider world. But for some time now, a small cadre of journalists analyzing Big Data has been at work.

Today, however, it is no longer a cadre. The number of data journalists, or forensic journalists, as I like to call them, has exploded. Today, Reuters has one of the largest teams of data journalists in the world with members in London, New York and Hong Kong.

At its core, data journalism is reporting, albeit a different kind from door-stopping politicians or cold-calling bankers. But it’s just as hard core and relentless, and requires a unique combination of reporting instincts and technical skills. And that has created new capabilities that let us extend Reuters journalism in fresh and important ways.

Over the last few months, Reuters has published a remarkable set of stories that illustrate how data journalism is at the heart of modern investigative stories. The work has included previously unpublished evidence of climate change using millions of tidal recordings; the corporatization of the US Supreme Court by examining thousands of petitions to the court; and suspicious contracting at Mexico’s oil giant Pemex using the government’s often-ignored data on recommended sanctions against contractors.

Each story covered a subject that had never been told so precisely and with voluminous data that had largely been ignored.

“The series focused on the measurable data and offered the clear evidence of the issues confronting governments and companies.”

Starting last September, the “Water’s Edge” series examined the global issue of rising seas and sinking land. At the heart of the series was an analysis of hundreds of tidal gauges from around the world, some of which have been documenting the daily ebb and flood tides for a century. The sea-levels they measure have been religiously recorded but few had bothered to examine what they have to say.

Using tens of millions of records, our analysis found that some locations have seen sea-level rises that can be measured in feet rather than inches. It identified the places that have seen the greatest impact in the US and elsewhere. The work was then wrapped with reporting along the US Eastern Seaboard, Texas, south England and Jakarta – documenting the economic, social and personal consequences of this shift in the seas.

Going beyond the politics and contentious debates about the causes of climate change, the series focused on the measurable data and offered the clear evidence of the issues confronting governments and companies.

In December, the “Echo Chamber” series examined the growing influence of a small cadre of lawyers on the US Supreme Court. About 15,000 petitions to the court provided by Thomson Reuters Westlaw® were used to create a structured database to track lawyers, their law firm, the issues raised in the petition, and whether the petition was granted by the court. In addition, the petitions were examined using advanced techniques that extracted related words from the petition narratives and clustered them by subjects and issues.

Again, this was something that had never been documented with such precision.

The insularity and influence of the Supreme Court bar was brought into stark relief, critical information not just for our legal customers, but also for anyone whose business or livelihood might be affected by a Supreme Court ruling. The series also included interviews with eight of the nine justices.

And in mid-January, a story examined a Mexican federal government database of suspect contracts granted by Pemex, the government-owned oil company, and compared those audits with suspect contracts taken up by theoretically independent investigators working inside the oil giant. It found that the investigators almost never acted.

Use of the data was a first in Mexico and underscores that the opportunities to employ data journalism go well beyond the United States. In this case, all of the data was publicly available in Mexico but no one, until Reuters, had connected the dots.

Using the data to identify particularly egregious examples, a team of reporters illustrated the dysfunction of the Pemex contracting system and how the company is turning a blind eye on wrongdoing.

Within a few weeks of publishing, the company announced it was revamping its contract reviews.

This type of work is essential for the future of journalism, raising the standard of work and legitimacy of findings. The journalism profession is changing and as data proliferates and computing power increases, the opportunities provide insights that would otherwise have been impossible.

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