“Thanks to Data Journalism, It’s Become Harder to Hide Anything”

Anna Barseghyan


Roman Kulchinsky is the editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian site TEXTY [UA], which is known for its remarkable journalistic work based on public data and its award-winning interactive projects [UA].

Roman was in Yerevan recently to teach a course on data journalism [AM] for journalists. He finds that data journalism has made it difficult for state officials to conceal anything and easy for the audience to understand and independently analyze data.

Why is data journalism important?

Data journalism is important because it presents the facts. We are surrounded by social media, various views and opinions, but facts are very few in all this. Data journalism has to do with facts and figures. It doesn’t force its opinion but tries to show trends, through collected facts and figures. Of course, numbers also can be manipulated, as in other types of journalism. What’s important is how the journalist presents them: will he really show what they mean or will he mislead the audience?

How has data journalism changed journalism?

We live in a digital world, and we are collecting more and more data. The internet, the media — they’re all figures that need to be analyzed. Our connections on social networking sites and draft laws in parliament likewise are data; they too can be visualized. Data journalism allows journalists to describe that which they couldn’t describe without using the new tools provided by data journalism. 

How is data journalism used in investigative journalism?

Let me cite an example. All the results of state tenders in Ukraine are published twice a month in print and online. But search is possible in neither the print nor online version. Which company won which tender when and for which ministry is stated there. But it’s not possible to see how many times that company won a tender or which companies a ministry works with. Officials do this so that the public and interested individuals won’t be able to analyze their activities. 

“The journalist who seriously wants to work in data journalism must know programming”

We compiled a database through programming, brought it to a certain format, and gave it a suitable interface so that anyone who wants will be able to analyze the data on government procurement. You can enter the site and search using various criteria and see which ministry buys, for instance, gasoline from whom. This is a classic example of data journalism.  

Thanks to data journalism, it’s become harder to hide anything.

What obstacles do journalists face in data journalism?

Not all the data is there, and what’s there is in a very unsuitable format, say, in a PDF. For example, state institutions, which are obliged to publish information on their websites, hide them so deep that it’s very difficult to find information immediately on official websites; one has to clearly know where it is.

Sometimes to get information it’s necessary to contact state institutions. They reply that either they don’t have the information or they’re not required to collect the requested information.

The other obstacle is having technical skills. It’s most preferable for the journalist to know programming. In one of our projects, we analyzed 34,000 draft laws; we analyzed who were their authors, and we found the connection between opposition and ruling party MPs.

“Data journalism has to do with facts and figures. It doesn’t force its opinion but tries to show trends, through collected facts and figures”

To analyze that data, we wrote a special program because in practice it’s impossible to analyze 34,000 bills manually. The journalist who seriously wants to work in data journalism must know programming. 

What impact does data journalism have on the audience?

Data journalism draws the public’s attention to numbers. It gives no comments; it just shows the trends, which are reinforced by numbers. If people study the dry facts more, it will be more difficult for officials to manipulate them.  

Furthermore, the audience finds it easier to understand visual information. If we analyze the state budget, no one will read about it, but an infographic, where key points will be separated and the facts will be highlighted, will get more attention. Human psychology is like that: we perceive information easier through images. 

A good infographic is also shared more widely on social networking sites.

Interview by Anna Barseghyan.

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