Data Developers and Journalists Merge in Newsrooms to Embrace New Roles

While in the past, traditionally newsrooms have employed data developers and journalists as separate entities of the newsrooms, these roles have somewhat merged creating a new beat in data journalism.

“We have moved forward with the idea that data visualization is another way to tell the story. There has been a merging of the two roles,” said Ryan Murphy, senior designer/developer at the Texas Tribune, on Monday.

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Ryan Murphy and Jolie McCullough were guest speakers in COMM4397: Data Journalism class at the Valenti School of Communication.

They are part of the four-member team of data journalists at The Texas Tribune that are at the forefront of data revolution in journalism. Murphy, who comes from a data science background, is in charge of creating graphics, interactive stories and data-driven features, and develops efficient data tools for the team. Jolie McCullough, who has a traditional journalism training background and a self-taught data expert, develops data interactives and news apps for the team. Together they have produced dozens of data-driven projects that have earned the Texas Tribune a national reputation as a leader in data journalism.

Murphy and McCullough see their job as engaging in two types of roles.

First, similar to traditional journalism, they engage in investigations into public good or public service type of stories. Within this line of work they have used large datasets to produce dozens of stories about public resources. For example, in the series titled “Unholstered: When Texas police pull the trigger,” they accessed a large public dataset of police shooting to investigate and produce a series of news stories about fatal police shootings in Texas.

“The most important job here is to interview the data – notice trends, ask questions. Ideas come from data, ideas we would have not thought about,” said McCullough.

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Second, through their work with data they aim to get their audiences involved in stories. Within this line of work, they work to provide access to the data in a user-friendly way, so their audiences can explore the data themselves, store it or share it with others. “This is public data and we think it is important to be available for people to access in an easy way. That is the stand we take,” says Murphy.

For example, one of the most famous projects in this line is The Texas Tribune’s database of annual salaries for more than 550,000 public employees. It is designed so that users can search for salaries by entering a public figure’s name, job title or the agency for which the public figure works. Similarly, their recent project involves the creation of the database Texas Public Schools Explorer, which provides searchable information about all public schools in Texas.

As data journalist, they both also see the importance of their role in engaging the community to provide solutions to community issues. For example, in the collaborative project with ProPublica titled “Hell & High Water,” they worked with scientists at the University of Houston, Rice and University of Texas to collect data on floods in the Houston area and the impact of different hurricanes. The project aimed to expose the vulnerability of Houston from floods and to find possible solutions for this problem. After the project was completed, they organized a town hall meeting with city officials and experts to present the project and open the dialog about what can be done to prevent potential future flooding.

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Challenges and opportunities

The most important challenge in their type of work has to do with accessing the data. Sometimes the data are readily available, other times it takes a long time to chase the data.

“Make sure what you have is something. Be able to confirm it. Making charts and visualization is the easiest,” said Ryan.

For students who inspire to learn skills needed for data journalism, they suggest that they need to ask themselves what it is that I need to know to find this information or tell a story. That should drive the willingness to learn new skills and new software that are helpful tools.

“The journalism mindset is the most important and the willingness to learn,” said McCullough.

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