The importance of data when there isn’t any around

By Leslie Young
Senior National Online Journalist, Global News & JHR Short Term Expert Trainer

Some things in journalism are universal, like wheedling with an editor for more time to work on a special project, finding a great new source for information or fighting secretive government departments for data.

Leslie in Al Ghad
Leslie Young (sitting far left) talks with the group of engaged journalists at Al Ghad Newspaper in Amman, Jordan

That’s what I learned on my second trip to Jordan with JHR, where I spent time working with local journalists and teaching data journalism skills.

I spent most of my time in the newsroom at Al Ghad, the largest independent newspaper in Jordan. There, I met some very impressive investigative reporters who were eager to expand their repertoire of skills, as well as some young keeners who were happy to have the opportunity to learn something new.

The students picked everything up very fast. Later, over many cups of strong coffee, we discussed their own story ideas. I was impressed by their ambition. Some wanted to tackle issues of social justice or examine the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Others were interested in consumer safety. Everyone was looking for data to try to make their stories stronger.

Leslie works with a journalist in Al Ghad Newspaper on data journalism skills.

Although we face many of the same problems in our day-to-day work, Jordanian journalists deal with an interesting contradiction. Everyone there agrees on the importance of data to give their reporting weight and credibility. For this reason they all want to learn how to use it better.

The problem is, there are relatively few official sources of data. So, it’s often obtained secretly through sources or cobbled together through other means when we in Canada might use Freedom of Information requests to obtain it. Although there is a local Freedom of Information law, none of the journalists I met had ever successfully used it to obtain government information.

Given this difficulty, I spent much of my trip trying to figure out why everyone placed such importance on data journalism skills. I think it comes down to this: in a country where the government will often deny or attack a story’s credibility, having data to back up your conclusions is important.

It’s even more important when journalists occasionally spend time in prison, or get calls from security agents about what they write.

Leslie, with a team of Al Ghad journalists, demonstrates how to make engaging infographics with data sets.

I hope that in some small way I’ll have helped these journalists with their reporting down the road, because they have big ideas and big plans for their stories. I was impressed at their fearlessness and dedication in a very difficult working environment and have every confidence that they will get their stories done.

But I also hope that data, and government information more generally, is made more available in this country so that journalists can more freely hold their government to account.

This activity has been conducted within the framework of the EU-funded project “Support to Media in Jordan” and the UNESCO-UNCCT project co-funded by Canada on strengthening the media capacity of journalists, media trainers, and CSOs on Media Information Literacy (MIL), conflict-sensitive reporting, gender and human rights reporting, countering hate speech, and youth-related topics.

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