By Afedzi Abdullah

Data journalism is a journalism specialty reflecting the increased important role that numerical data plays in story production and distribution in the digital age. It reflects the increased interaction between content producers (journalist) and several other fields such as design, mathematics, computer science and statistics. Many experts have described data journalism as not a replacement of traditional journalism but an addition to improving journalism, knowing that journalism is a useful tool for the advancement of progress and development.

 

The concept of data journalism in Ghana

The concept of data journalism is very much in its infant stage though the practice over the last few years is gaining significant grounds among practitioners. In recent times, journalists in Ghana have consciously used data to strategically champion national issues into a polished but very simple news story, to reach out to the masses with the help of technology.

However, Ghana cannot be exempted from the obvious problem with availability of data and its attendant difficulty in accessing them associated with data journalism practice especially in the sub Saharan Africa.

In recent times, organisations such as the International Institute of ICT Journalism Penplusbytes, Ghana Open Data Initiative among others have championed the process of data journalism in Ghanaian newsrooms with some training workshops.

 

Relevance of data journalism in the media landscape

A critical view of the media landscape worldwide clearly shows that data journalism is the way-forward. Having access to data and being able to manipulate it allows journalists to go the extra mile in news production. More than anything else, data journalism provides truth and clarity in the increasing amount of digital information that exists in the world today.


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Jerry Sam, programmes manager of Penplusbytes, says data journalism has opened up the news gathering process through countless opportunities by combining traditional ‘nose for news’ and ability to tell a compelling story using rich large scale and diverse digital data and document sets.

To him, journalists are able to connect historical incidents, provide context and draw conclusions with data.

“Data journalism makes it possible to tell the news behind the news. Find truth from data for public interest and write stories from huge amount of data derived from multiple sources including governments,” he said.

It also helps to tell complex story through engaging visualisations and in an easy to understand manner.

 

Challenges

A big challenge to journalism practice in Ghana has been access to open data. Data is a scarce commodity in the country and the situation is further exacerbated by lack of freedom of information law which can empower journalists and other interested parties to demand for vital data needed to generate data journalism pieces.

Every aspect of our national life, lacks organised data. Even when this data is available, it is either locked up in printed format or in PDF which makes it difficult to process.

“Access to information is still limited as government is yet to pass the Legislative Instrument (LI) for the full implementation of the RTI [Right to Information],” says Sam of Penplusbytes.

The RTI Law in Ghana: 5 Key Facts You Need to Know About Your Right to Information

Thus, despite the potential of data journalism to provide critical context, insight and actionable information in times of information crisis, many media practitioners are turning away because it is difficult, slow and expensive. Many media houses are reluctant to take the risk of investing in their own data team.

“It is expensive as sometimes one will require the services of an online programmer, visual communicator, producing motion graphics etc,” Sam stressed, while indicating that data received are also not organised and machine friendly to aid ease of use.

“Some easy to use tech tools to clean and visualise data are not free. It can be time consuming,” he added.

 

The RTI law and data journalism practice in Ghana

Many Ghanaian journalists have had a good case when they attributed their information impediment to the delay in the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) Law.

Fortunately, after years of debate and national consultations, the proposed Right to Information Bill was passed into law in 2019. What then does this mean for data journalism practice in the country?

Sam believes that there is greater opportunity for journalists to have access to historical data and information that was hitherto inaccessible. That, he stressed means that journalists have to become curators and explainers of the data.

He said journalist have to admit that their role as gatekeepers will reduce or come to an end since everyone could access the information that journalists in the past were only privy to.

Isaac Arkoh, a journalist with the Ghana News Agency (GNA) says the passing of the RTI law would enhance the free flow of news and information as the hallmark of a functioning democracy.

He says government must develop clear policy on the freedom of information in a bid to ensure that subsequent legislation were implemented effectively and based on accepted international principles and best practices.

 

Necessary skills that journalists need to have in order to cope with data journalism

According to Sam, the advent of data journalism calls for new skills, processes and tools including statistical literacy, an ability to work with large data sets and make connections between various data sets. He admonished journalists need to build their skills to use spreadsheets, Timetric, Graphinder, Google Fusion Tables, Google Refine etc to tell compelling stories from the big data available.

To this end, he says journalists must have the eye for leveraging increasingly available data plus easy to use tools compelling stories which were impossible to create in the past .

“Data literacy includes statistical literacy but also understanding how to work with large data sets, how they were produced, how to connect various data sets and how to interpret them is vital,” he stated.

He said journalists need to build on their visualisation and mapping skills, have the ability to make sense of data and translate them into stories while ensuring the data in use is of the highest integrity.

In light of the changing phases of journalism practice, journalists and newsrooms in Ghana must adapt to stay afloat. They must make conscious efforts to build their capacities, encourage others to do same while adhering strictly to best practices to sustain personal and organisational growth

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