After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., cities erupted in chaos. Philip Meyer, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press during the 1968 Detroit riots, published the Riot Commission Report, using data and social sciences to “count and sort and analyze the thoughts of that many people” to analyze race relations throughout the city.
Scholars haven’t pinpointed the exact origin of data journalism. But Jennifer LaFleur, former director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica and current data editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, said one of the earliest successes of using data and computers to tell stories was Meyer’s work for the Free Press.
LaFleur says it was not until computers became commonplace in newsrooms in the mid-90s that reporters began to further use data and technology to help with their reporting.
“A lot of newsrooms had one PC that people could share,” she said. “Getting up from your desk [to use the computer] meant someone might call you and you wouldn’t be there.”
LaFleur said the primary software newsrooms would use were Paradox, Lotus 123 and Quatro Pro. Now, reporters can use Microsoft Excel and Adobe Suite to tell and present stories.
Now there is more collaboration in newsrooms than ever before. But LaFleur is not sure where it will go next and is surprised that more reporters are not using data analyzing to tell stories.
“Hopefully there will be more collaboration,” she said. “I think that being in silos and being in our individual news organizations is not enough to do some of the big news stories that need to be done.”
Data journalism’s biggest accomplishment to date is arguably the Panama Papers.
After an anonymous source leaked 11.5 million files to a German reporter, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists organized more than 300 reporters and 100 media outlets to analyze the leaked data. The story, which exposed how political leaders, celebrities and companies hid their money in a Panamanian law firm, prompted international scrutiny and political leaders were forced to resign.
“Lots of news organizations came together to do a really powerful analysis,” she said.
The Panama Papers won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.