At my office, you are either good with data or with stories. Many of us do one thing well, but the gap between the skills is growing and we really need to do both—tell stories with data.
This is part of a conversation I had with one of my journalist friends after he had seen a call for applications for the second cohort of the Data Storytelling Fellowship, a Kenyan collaborative project between Baraza Media Lab and Fringe Graph targeting journalists and grassroots communicators. As the program manager at Baraza Media Lab, my role involves engaging the immediate Baraza community and the larger media industry in career building engagements such as the fellowship, and other media incubation projects that add value to not only Kenyan storytellers but also within the East African region. So my friend, he wanted to know if a bespoke training on data storytelling could be engaged at his place of work.
This year we approached the fellowship by focusing on data stories covering gender and governance—two vital topics at the global level, but also timely in the Kenyan context.
Kenya ushered in a new government administration after the August 2022 general election. During this period, the country recorded the highest number of female government officials elected into office and the President-elect was also the assumed ‘underdog.’ The election results had many firsts and social media and digital news was ablaze with opinion pieces on the same. As we had already planned to announce a call for a new cohort, we decided to engage journalists and communicators to retrospectively address the new administration’s manifesto through articles that addressed the gender and governance pillars during the fellowship. We received a mammoth number of applications: 245 to be exact, and eventually selected eight high quality pitches that could be well supported with data to develop compelling pieces.
What exactly is data storytelling?
The term “storyteller” is a little ambiguous. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “storyteller” as someone who tells or reads stories to others. Merriam Webster Dictionary adds to this definition by describing storytellers as a reciter of tales. But “tales” doesn’t sound very credible, does it? Wikipedia however, does a better job of describing storytelling and, by extension, refining who the storyteller is or can be.
It says, “Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics or embellishment. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values. Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters, and narrative point of view. The term ‘storytelling’ can refer specifically to oral storytelling but also broadly to techniques used in other media to unfold or disclose the narrative of a story,” and I believe with that description I can pinpoint data as the tool or technique being used to disclose the narrative in a more compelling and credible fashion to the reader.
The first cohort of the fellowship had nine participants, among them seven women. Three of them shared with me their experiences during the six-month fellowship and their debut as data journalists. Here are three of their stories:
Edith Magak: Learning how to fold data into the narrative
When journalist Edith Magak wrote a story in October 2022 (almost a year after the fellowship) addressing the spread of HIV/AIDS in mining towns across Africa, it quickly went viral. It was first published on AIDSMAP, where she previously worked as a freelance contributor and republished severally by other news outlets. She is passionate about writing stories on social issues which she has done for media agencies such as The Elephant, and Narratively. After the unprecedented success of her story, Edith was affirmed yet again on her decision for reporting with data as a baseline for her story. She believes that emotive stories that are also data focused create awareness, stir change among local communities, and even better inform humanitarian efforts.
When Edith applied for the fellowship she had mixed feelings because she was comfortable doing narratives and didn’t want to complicate her style with numbers. To her, numbers looked strange and she would usually avoid graphs and complicated reports that needed careful analysis for story building. Today her perspective has changed, and she says stories are better and more nuanced with data interpretation.
As the content editor for the digital-first African news agency Bird, she now digs into scientific reports and guides a team of approximately a hundred contributors across the continent to unpack complicated reports to find good stories. As a result, at least two data stories are published every week. For her, the fellowship became a life-changing decision for her career. An eye-opener that armed her with skills that continue to serve her and gain an upper hand. Edith didn’t just know about data, she knew how to use it.
Wanjeri Gakuru: Limited data can still make a huge impact
As I speak to Wanjeri Gakuru, also from the first cohort of the fellowship, she introduces herself as a journalist who preferred writing stories about arts and culture. A multi-talented individual with over 12 years experience in journalism and scriptwriting, her first experience writing with data was through the fellowship. Wanjeri has a talent for finding a hidden story within a society and developing an alluring narrative around it. Whether good or bad, she’s keen on telling the Kenyan story and, as if standing on the outside looking in, she used the fellowship to explore the complexities that surround the vast sociocultural experiences of a country with over 42 tribes that often resorted to “mob justice” or lynching to handle petty crime issues.
Wanjeri is not a stranger to writing stories that investigate extraordinary Kenyan experiences and cultural norms. She is also a script writer and has been telling stories people need to hear for years. Take “Supa Modo” for instance, a film about a young Kenyan girl suffering from a terminal illness and whose greatest ambition is to be a superhero. The film was well received by the Kenyan audience and went on to premiere at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. It was also selected as the Kenyan entry for best foreign language film at the 91st Academy Award.
Although a little skeptical at first about the direction a story exploring the dark side of community justice or the lack thereof, considering the limited and inhumane actions that lynching communicates as a form of justice; Wanjeri wanted to investigate, inform, and impact local communities by using data to tell an important story. She welcomed the challenge of developing an “unpopular story,” and in the process she was able to highlight the limited and scanty data relating to lynching incidences in Nairobi given the few reported cases.
After the onset of the fellowship, Wanjeri’s doubts were replaced by learnings that engaged her love for beauty through the colorful data visualization presentations and analysis techniques. She also describes the eight weeks accorded to her to develop the story during the fellowship as a privilege. Having worked in a newsroom before, she was happy to shed the pressure that came with tight submission deadlines. In her continued unique fashion, Wanjeri’s story is to be presented on stage as a skit through a showcase at Baraza Media Lab’s “Story Sosa”—a multidisciplinary journalism project which will host a series of live journalism events including stories created for a stage, a screen, and a live audience to be delivered within a single evening. It will combine elements of narrative storytelling, video, animation, immersive experiences, and a live band, scheduled for July of this year.
Linda Ngari: Using data to support the evidence and facts
Linda Ngari joined the fellowship as a contributing journalist for public interest media agency Africa Uncensored. She worked in their debunking chapter, Piga Firimbi (Blow the Whistle). However, without the data skills to support her fact-checking work, it felt like fitting a square block into a circle. She made the application with full knowledge she needed to gain new skills to inform her role and write stories that increased the credibility of the debunking reports. Today, Linda leads Piga Firimbi and guides her fellow journalists, a small team of five, to write evidence-based investigative stories.
She recently wrote about a story addressing a UK-based Ponzi scam that targeted Kenyans and Tanzanians using betting fraud. The article on Future Football Finance was supported by both UK and Italian sources to expose the scam that was largely played out on Twitter. She is in the habit of covering all her bases, as every fact-checker should. After completing the fellowship with Baraza, she was selected for another data fellowship with Africa Data Hub that engages journalists in Kenya and Nigeria, solidifying herself as a data journalist.
These women are just a few from the pool of many who are using data to write stories that need to be told, and there are a lot more who are curious and hungry to follow suit and lead in the dynamic space of data journalism.
June Injete is invested in contributing to social change through development practice using her talents in project management, communications, and business development to give primary focus to promoting equality among youth and women.