Media & PR

The future of news: Nate Silver’s take

Poster boy for statistical predictors, Nate Silver, has a new piece out explaining the vision for the future of journalism which lies behind his new site FiveThirtyEight:

Our methods are not meant to replace “traditional” or conventional journalism… Still, I would never have launched FiveThirtyEight in 2008, and I would not have chosen to broaden its coverage so extensively now, unless I thought there were some need for it in the marketplace. Conventional news organizations on the whole are lacking in data journalism skills.

He then sets out a four part process to follow “by which anecdote is transformed into data and information”, which using mostly his words is:

  1. Collection of data or evidence. For a traditional journalist, this is likely to involve some combination of interviewing, documentary research and first-person observation. But data journalists also have ways of collecting information, such as by commissioning polls, performing experiments or scraping data from websites.

  2. Organization. Traditional journalists have a well-established means of organizing information: they formulate a news story… Data journalists, meanwhile, can organize information by running descriptive statistics on it, by placing it into a relational database or by building a data visualization from it … There is value in these approaches both as additional modes of storytelling and as foundations for further analysis.

  3. Explanation. Going beyond the who, what, where and when questions to those of why and how … Data journalists, again, have their own set of techniques — principally running various types of statistical tests to look for relationships in the data. (This is the step where Silver is most critical of many journalists and commentators. The full piece is well worth a read for his examples of this if nothing else.)

  4. Generalization: No matter how well you understand a discrete event, it can be difficult to tell how much of it was unique to the circumstances, and how many of its lessons are generalizable into principles. But data journalism at least has some coherent methods of generalization.

Or as his neat graphic puts it:

Nate Silver model for journalism

What does this all mean for people dealing with the media? It also gives a four-part model for making a story interesting to a journalist or for persuading the media of a message. Each of Silver’s four steps is the opportunity to present evidence or a chain or reasoning – especially as many journalists are too busy to explore any of the four steps in much detail from scratch.

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