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Oct 28 / King Kaufman

Data journalism danger: You have to question the data and where it comes from

Data journalism is a hot trend in the last few years, but there are so many numbers in sports that you could argue sportswriters have been doing data journalism since before data journalism was cool.

We haven’t always done it well, but we’ve been doing it.

While it isn’t sports related, Trevor Butterworth’s piece When Data Journalism Goes Wrong has some good lessons for sportswriters who want to tangle with numbers.

The main lesson is pretty much the same as the prime directive for tangling with things that aren’t numbers too: Question everything.

Butterworth breaks down two posts on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you and Why the U.S. should start taxing soda like cigarettes and alcohol. He examines where the underlying data comes from, questions the motives and methods of various people behind them, and proceeds to generally, in his own words, “follow the footnotes and check out the data.”

Butterworth concludes:

The risk for wonk journalism is that you either lose in audience as you expand in analysis, or you dumb down and end up dumb. The rub is, you can’t tell good data from bad without doing analysis.

Early in my career, on the night sports copy desk at the old San Francisco Examiner, I made up a rule for myself that I still live by as both a writer and an editor. It’s an extension of the rule that says to check every name and every number: If you see any kind of math in a story, re-calculate it yourself, because you have to assume it’s wrong. At least 37 percent of the time—about one in five—it will be.