Bob Pearson asked last week what the big “silent trends” would be for 2011. For me, the answer is clear: this will be the year in which computer-assisted reporting establishes itself as one of the best and most powerful storytelling tools used by the media.
Computer-assisted reporting isn’t new. Last year, ProPublica scraped disparate government and pharmaceutical company databases to assemble its “Dollars for Docs” reporting on payments from industry to physicians and culled government data to assess dialysis care. Over the past few years, USA Today has worked with public data and private number-crunches to quantitatively assess hospital quality. And the Los Angeles Times, earlier in the decade, earned a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories about FDA drug regulation that included some exhaustive analyses of more than 1,000 deaths reported to the FDA. And the tradition extends back far further.
But each passing year has made it easier and easier for members of the media to analyze enormous datasets cheaply, easily and without the need for exhaustive training. I believe 2011 will be the tipping point, driven by three factors:
- The amount of raw, easily obtained and digitally formatted data is now enormous. Driven by a global push for transparency, companies and government agencies are now pushing out terabytes of unfiltered information; there is a opportunity for those that that would put that data into context. (This is to say nothing of Wikileaks, which clearly aspires to add to the data deluge in disruptive new ways.)
- The tools by which reporters can clean and scour the data have never been cheaper or more powerful (the ProPublica effort, for instance, was built almost entirely on free software and services). That means good computer-assisted reporting is available to an ever-broader swath of media, including not only mainstream outlets but also bloggers and others leveraging new media.
- In a time when so much of news has been commoditized by the web, journalists are coming to understand that data journalism offers an opportunity to build scoops that can be branded.
This, in turn, should lead to a change in the way that we in public relations approach data and approach the media. Just as we check to make source that clients aren’t misquoted or taken out of context, we will need to be facile enough with computer-assisted reporting tools to be able to make sure that numbers are being crunched in ways that are accurate. We must also become increasingly aware of the data our companies and our clients push out into the world, even seemingly worthless information, and ask ourselves if that data can be examined — or mashed up with other data sets — to tell a story.
Finally, we must be proactive about analyzing data ourselves to help inform the pitches that we make to media. Media-relations pros have always prided themselves on the ability to help reporters spot trends, and an old press joke is that all you need are three examples to mint a trend. But now, rather than just three data points, we can use 3,000 — or 3 million — data points to illustrate stories.
The media has already been profoundly changed by abundant data and cheap and powerful software, but the change has been quiet: Access databases don’t get interviewed on CNN, and regression analyses don’t get published by the New York Times. All we see are polished final products of this exhaustive reporting.
All great reporting comes from digging into a subject deeply. In the past, that had meant a dogged reporter, out in the field, talking to source after source after source. Today, that digging increasingly means a dogged reporter, staring at a computer, looking at line after line after line of data. And if we, as PR pros, can’t do the same, we’ll be left behind on one of the biggest media trends of the next decade.