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Dig your data. Data journalism story ideas for your newsroom

Chris GuinnIn a time when the relationship between the words “truth” and “news” is increasingly being brought into question, a reporter’s ability to present information that is backed up by legitimate, citable data has become even more important to their writing, no matter the size or scope of the story.

It’s safe to say that data journalism has a special place in all of our hearts here at GateHouse Newsroom, which is why we turned to The Ledger’s data pro, Chris Guinn, for examples of some replicable data journalism stories.

I’m The Ledger‘s Lakeland government reporter and resident Excel jockey. I assist on many of the data-centered stories from our newsroom. While the best investigations our profession produces often include hard-fought-for, tediously hand-built data sources, a basic level of competency working with prepackaged data can add context and credibility to daily news and give an extra dimension to enterprise stories. Sometimes, data is the story — changes in reported crime rates, economic numbers, your locality’s place in the world — but I think the most interesting news pieces use data to contribute to ongoing coverage.

That means start with a question you want to answer. I don’t recommend people fish through vast sources to find some interesting snippet. Here are some simple, replicable stories we’ve done in our newsroom.

Local arrest rates
Disproportionate number of blacks charged with pot possession in Lakeland, Winter Haven

Lakeland’s governing board was debating whether to remove criminal penalties from misdemeanor cannabis possession convictions and replace them with civil fines like parking tickets. This story came from trying to understand who was seeing the sharp end of the current enforcement policy. This wasn’t new ground — national level studies have been fairly common and consistent — but we wanted to get hard numbers from our coverage area.

What we found was that local police agencies had racial discrepancies in the rate of arrest far in excess of the national average.

We used a very simple analysis. We requested arrest data from the largest municipal police agencies in the county and combined it with U.S. Census population estimates to figure out an arrest rate per 1,000 residents of a given race for one year.

Ultimately, this is a story about systemic outcomes, which means any coverage is a garden hose in a waterfall. Still, it’s hard for law enforcement to be shown those kinds of discrepancies and not feel pressure to come up with a plan. The debate in Lakeland simmered out as the board deferred to state law on decriminalization, but the state attorney promised to make diversion programs more accessible — a topic ripe for future coverage and accountability reporting.

DUI Enforcement
DUI arrests drop in Polk County

This is a story that came from an idle curiosity while commuting home under the signs on Interstate 4. They often feature some catchy couplet or slant rhyme that ends with vehicular manslaughter: “Drink, drive, die,” “Click it or ticket,” “SMS, become a mess,” that sort of thing. The data came from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It’s also useful to know where your data sources are when a law enforcement official talks about its priorities so you can see if it’s all talk. Clearly, DUI enforcement isn’t a priority anymore in Polk County — either that or everyone has become a teetotaler, an Uber fan, or maybe both.

Then make your calls and ask “Why?” It’s not a bad idea to check these as new data are released throughout the year.

Local wages
Polk County experienced wage spurt last year

This was a basic localization story, the sort that gets passed up for the big national headline numbers.

I think too often smaller newsrooms pass on federal data because the sources can be intimidating. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is one of those. It’s easy to get lost in the stacks. It’s worth familiarizing yourself with what’s available. I think it’s worthwhile to set your calendars to notify you of all the down-ticket data releases from major federal agencies that play some role on your local beat.

This story came from the general economic anxiety narrative we’re all familiar with. We wanted to know if the national numbers indicating wage stagnation were true here, as well. There are quarterly weekly wage Census results produced by the BLS. We adjusted those nominal dollar figures to “real” dollars using the Consumer Price Index to account for inflation. The data showed that Polk County had seen a huge shift in wages in a short amount of time. We’re average.

With the quantity of data available, I think it’s more manageable to follow a few key local numbers or industries important to your region than try to find interesting nuggets throughout the entire library. I always advocate reporters start with a hypothesis rather than fish for stories.

I’ve also found federal analysts to be exceedingly helpful in answering questions, and sometimes agencies go out of their way to help you steer through this stuff.

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