Using data to inform the readers

by Sarah Vasquez

Denise Malan, investigative/data editor for Corpus Christi Caller-Times newspaper, shared ways to inform the public with facts and figures.

There are several ways journalists can use data. Several examples Malan shared included the salary of public officials, analysis of street projects, and budgets. With the collected data, journalists can show the readers the facts instead of telling them.

“In these days, the people just don’t want to read something and take your word for it. They actually want to see it. They want to discover things for themselves. They actually want to get into the database and discover something that you haven’t seen,” said Malan.

The readers and journalists can make their own analysis and conclusions with the information given. She said that this can be used to test what the public officials are telling the public.

An important reason to use data is to help public data become even more public. One way journalists receive this information is through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Through this act, most documents produced by government agencies, including emails, are open to the public. Of course, there are exceptions that can not be given such as social security numbers and credit card information.

Malan gave tips on what a journalist should keep in mind when submitting a FOIA request. When possible, request the records in an electronic format, but also make sure to request record layout and code sheet to know what the columns and codes in the document mean.

The hardest part of working with data is cleaning is up. Malan stressed that a journalist should always save a copy of the data as it was received and never erase the data in a working copy. But after all the cleaning up is done, this is what Malan referred to as the fun part: the analysis of the data.

Her suggestions to students on data journalism is to take advantage of the resources Texas State University provides such as a basic programming class. Malan is currently taking classes at a community college to learn programming.

“If I could go back and talk to my college self, I would say use some of your electives on these things,” said Malan.

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