Local news organizations in Germany and data journalism

The article “Local Data Journalism in Germany: Data-driven Reporting Amidst Local Communities and Authorities” by Florian Stalph from LMU Munich and Oliver Hahn and David Liewehr from University of Passau explored data journalism within local and regional news organizations in Germany.

Data journalism is often associated with large organizations such as ProPublica or with major, national and international newsrooms like The Guardian. However, early data journalism was often of local characteristic and the benefits of data journalism in local reporting are clear. 

The economic struggles such as lack of staffing have particularly reduced local newsrooms’ ability to utilize data journalism. Despite this, several German local news organizations have managed to conduct data journalism. Data journalism, in other words, has become at least somewhat democratized. 

The authors caution that the study is not meant to be representative of all regional data journalism and its status quo in Germany, but more in the vein of anecdotal collection of case studies. 

Local journalism differs from journalism at large, among other things, in expectations. While journalism in general is expected to serve a public watchdog -purpose, holding those in power accountable, in local journalism this role comes second. 

The primary role of local journalism is to act as a “good neighbor”, relaying news of local interest to its readers. This has led some scholars to even accuse local journalism of sycophantic coverage, as the journalists are often embedded and tied in with the elites. 

Data journalism is hard to define in a clear-cut manner. It consists of gathering and organizing data in support of journalism. Explaining and conveying complex facts are central to the work of a data journalist.

The study here consisted of nine semi-structured in-depth interviews, where the interviewees were data journalists working for regional and local newspapers in Germany. Eight were men, one was a woman. The circulation of the newspapers they worked on ranged from a bit over 80.000 to slightly under 300.000. 

The first research question was on the challenges the journalists face when obtaining data from governmental sources. The participants were, by and large, satisfied with the services available to them on national and regional level, some defining it as a “treasure trove”. However, on the municipal level the services were insufficient, particularly when it comes to geographic data. 

Despite the insufficient data, the journalists rarely used FOI (Freedom of Information) requests to attain data. They were described as creating friction with the authorities and there were thus misgivings about it, but it was nevertheless occasionally used. 

Typically, the journalists sought instead to maintain good relations with the authorities and then having the data they could get with a FOI without having to formally file the request. 

The second research question was about the structure of the work. Most participants felt only partially integrated to the editorial practices of the newsroom, data journalistic projects were instead managed by few lone journalists. Some of the journalists did not exclusively work as data journalists but had breaks lasting weeks from that work. 

The data journalists mostly relied on existing tools such as Excel, Datawrapper and Carto to conduct their analysis, as there was no time for development of in-house tools. The training in data journalism mostly relied on initiative. All in all, the major obstacle for all data work was lack of time, as it is time-consuming.

The third research question was on how the journalists utilized data to make local news stories. There were two main approaches: the first was to have a topic already at the ready and to search data for it, the second was to utilize pre-existing data. They sought to tie in the stories to local context by default in their work. 

Many of the interviewees viewed pure data as too abstract, and thus sought to have individuals in the stories for the readers to empathize with. The personal conversations also were needed to verify the data and provide a reality check. 

The last, fourth research question was on how the participants perceived their role in the context of local journalism. The answers displayed a diversity in goals and motivations. One emphasized the service function of data journalism via interactive maps, two considered data important as evidence. 

Information and explanation were considered important, as was the telling of reader oriented human stories. Data stories could improve the readers statistical understanding  and raise awareness on the shortcomings of the quantitative method. “Empowering journalism”, where readers would analyze the data and form political responses by it, were emphasized by some. 

The data journalists did not feel a duty to present their region only in positive terms. Only one reported that self-censoring on basis of expected reader response occurred by some colleagues, but not by the interviewee in question. Being rooted in region only influenced the choice of topics, but had no bearing otherwise. 

The study emphasizes that not only do local and regional newsrooms need to recognize the potential of data journalism, but also the regional and national data providers -as they were central in the success of data journalism. Stories were often personalized by local protagonists. The authors caution that the sample size is too small to draw wide conclusions, but the study nevertheless offers interesting insights.

The article “Local Data Journalism in Germany: Data-driven Reporting Amidst Local Communities and Authorities” by Florian Stalph, Oliver Hahn and David Liewehr is in Journalism Practice. (open access). 

Picture: Untitled by Erik Mclean.

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