SOME JOURNALISTS ARE uncomfortable with numbers. Data and statistics can be difficult to comprehend, and they can be interpreted in many ways. But they can also be used as support for stories, making trends and observations credible in the eyes and ears of the audience.
"Numbers are authoritative," Inquirer staff writer Alfred Lubrano said yesterday in class during our discussion of Data & Journalism. "But you have to find a balance. People like to read about other people."
"What I don't want," said Dylan Purcell, the Inquirer's computer assisted reporter, "is a story that reads like the stocks pages."
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, added, "The goal is to put a human face on a phenomena, and to anchor the story in numbers."
Sometimes the numbers and the initial premise of stories do not line up. Sometimes, there is just not enough statistical evidence to support angles or ideas. And those stories usually wind up getting scrapped.
Rubin Erdely spoke of a story she recently considered - about crime decreasing in urban areas where murals were painted. While the idea sounded great, she could not find any reliable studies that proved the thesis.
Lubrano emphasized that he tries to verify all data that he finds, whether through other data or by speaking with the people who generated the numbers.
"At the root, we want solid statistical evidence," he said, "not journalistic hyperbole."
Purcell referred to it as "interviewing the data." The idea is to avoid "dirty data" that has been manipulated for a specific purpose, and to understand how the information was gathered. He referred to the Inquirer's recent package on school violence. The school district reported a 30 percent decrease in school violence over two years. But Purcell expanded the data over a five year period and found that the decrease was short term, and possibly exaggerated by the methods of reporting.
The Inquirer team, with Purcell pouring through the numbers, spent about one year gathering data, interviews and other information for the seven-part series that ran during a full week.
"I start out knowing nothing," Purcell said. "Then I have to become an expert and present that data to the world."
Prior to the panel discussion, some people were involved in a training seminar with the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project (below). MPIP is a gigantic database that allows you to set your own variables, build maps and study reports broken down by your own specific guidelines.What stood out to you during the discussion?
10 months ago