Four Reasons to be Optimistic about Data Journalism in 2024

According to findings from the State of Data Journalism, a 2022 survey from the European Journalism Centre, almost 40 percent of data journalists surveyed “became involved in data journalism as a result of the pandemic.” In fact, one of my favorite pieces of data journalism was published in April 2020. It was a rare piece of data journalism at the time—short and simple. Published in The Washington Post, which had generously taken down its paywall for COVID-related news, it was a much needed article because it didn’t try to tackle  huge data sets, or enormous numbers, or statistics that seemed outdated the second they hit the screen. Instead, The Washington Post, in this particular case, put forth an article about jobs lost on one block in Washington D.C. The piece wasn’t flashy or interactive, but showed the city block using illustrated, photo, and text formats in such an intimate way that the financial fallout of the pandemic became not only clear to the reader, but personal as well.

Here we are now, almost four years later, and data journalism is still going strong. While there are challenges ahead, we’ve certainly learned a few things since 2020. As we say goodbye to 2023 and look forward to 2024, here are some thoughts about the current state of data journalism.

Data journalism thrives in a multimedia, longform format.

These deeply investigated pieces are often collaborative efforts that take weeks if not months to complete. Wired’s “Inside the Suspicion Machine,” recognized by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) as one of the best data journalism projects of 2023, was created in partnership with Lighthouse Reports and lists five authors/researchers and more than a dozen total contributors. In addition to sharp writing, the piece includes a range of interactive graphics, data visualizations, flow charts, and illustrations. It also incorporates another popular format: scrollytelling.

Many award-winning data journalism pieces follow similar formats; they are longform investigative pieces with vibrant photographs, compelling videos, and colorful illustrations alongside visually engaging data representations that make complicated material easier to understand. Most deal with serious subjects, but GIJN also honored a series of data articles focusing on Taylor Swift, including Reuters’s “The Unstoppable Pop of Taylor Swift.” While perhaps not technically longform, the piece includes many creative and interactive data vizes, looks at metrics such as danceability, and has enough cat photos to thrill most Swifties.

Data journalism is thriving, but what about data viz?

While the articles referenced above include not only lots of visual interest but also some compelling visual representations of data, other pieces classified as data journalism raise an interesting question: Do data visualizations need to be a major part of a data journalism article? It would seem that data viz would be an important part of any data-driven piece, but it isn’t always. 

Take, for example, ProPublica’s stunning series that examines connections between deadly pandemics and deforestation. The three-part series won a University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, but only one of the three parts includes multiple data visualizations. The main article of the series, “On the Edge,” includes smart writing, numerous photos, pullout quotes, and other engaging graphics but only two small maps that could be considered data visualizations.

Another example is a four-part investigative series from the Marshall Project that looks at abuses in New York prisons. This important and sobering series, which was a finalist for a University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, doesn’t include a lot of data viz. “In New York, Guards Who Brutalize Prisoners Rarely Get Fired,” the main article in the series, opens with an elaborate and creative data visualization meant to show the number of disciplinary cases against prison staff, the number of attempted firings, and the number of actual firings. It’s an impressive graphic (although most people may need to read the accompanying text if they want specific numbers), but it’s also the only data visualization in the entire series.

For some readers, it may not matter whether the data are in the text or in visual format, but for those who prefer lots of data viz in data journalism, there’s reason to be optimistic. New tools are making it easier to create data visualizations, and more colleges are offering data journalism degrees that include specific coursework related to data visualization. New platforms and more data-related college degrees may also offer exciting opportunities for independently published work, such as Jessica Carr’s “Why Does Vogue Hate Text,” honored by The Pudding as one of the best visual articles of 2023.

While longform pieces often steal the spotlight, shorter data journalism articles exist and deserve more recognition.

Multimedia longform pieces often look at important subjects including war and other conflicts, racism, and economic issues, but they take a long time to create, are expensive to produce, and often require multiple contributors. Plus — and more on this below — they tend to appeal to older audiences. No matter how impressive these pieces are, shorter (and quicker-turn) data journalism articles are important as well. Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank short-form collection is one such example.

Fact Tank’s articles tend to be focused, include at least one chart or graph, and range from approximately 400 to 2,000 words. Consider Pew’s rationale for this real-time platform: “In today’s fast-moving world, it is more important than ever for data to provide context for the policy issues and major news events that have become part of the national conversation. To provide background that is both reliable and timely, Fact Tank draws on Pew Research Center’s own data as well as other reputable data sources on the topics of politics, religion, science, technology, media, economics, global trends, Hispanics and social trends.”

The 2021 and 2022 State of Journalism surveys (administered by the European Journalism Centre) found that most data journalism articles took at least a week and sometimes up to several months to complete. However, data from these same surveys suggest that journalists may be starting to recognize the importance of shorter forms of data journalism. Data from 2023 are still being collected; however, researchers compared findings from the 2021 and 2022 surveys and noted a small shift toward “quicker-produced stories.”

Data journalism has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years, but there are still some untapped opportunities for growth, particularly in the areas of social media.

To understand the importance of social media and data journalism, consider where people, particularly younger demographics, find their news. According to research from McKinsey & Company, approximately 50 percent of Gen Z-ers see news on social media, and while the number of Gen Z-ers who find news via TikTok is still relatively small, that number is growing. Exact numbers and percentages vary depending on the survey and geographical scope, but a July 2023 report from Reuters includes similar findings: “…younger groups everywhere are showing a weaker connection with news brands’ own websites and apps than previous cohorts – preferring to access news via side-door routes such as social media, search, or mobile aggregators.” While some publishers are trying to find ways to direct younger audiences back to more traditional platforms, many industry experts and academics believe media outlets should stop expecting audiences to grow into traditional platforms and instead should bring stories to the platforms these audiences already engage with.  

Sumi Aggarwal, chief strategy officer at The Intercept, reminds writers that social media isn’t a death knell for journalism and suggests looking for opportunities and experimenting with new forms: “…in today’s noisy and crowded information ecosystem, we have to work to make sure the public finds our work. That means we must reach them where they are and in ways that appeal to them.” She continues, “We must accept that the beautifully written 10,000-word piece will only reach certain kinds of audiences — those most willing to sit at a desktop and take the time necessary to read it. Those are not stories that are meant for mobile or young news consumers. The audiences for those prestige pieces inherently skew older, more affluent and let’s face it, traditional white and North American readers.” Aggarwal is speaking of investigative journalism in general, but her points certainly apply to data journalism as well.

While many media outlets have strong social presences, few are dedicated solely to data journalism and searches for data journalism on TikTok and Instagram bring up limited results. One exception is Mona Chalabi, who created the 2023 Pulitzer Prize winning article “9 Ways to Imagine Jeff Bezos’ Wealth” (best viewed here if you don’t subscribe to The New York Times). Chalabi’s Instagram feed has over 480,000 followers with her most popular posts having close to 80,000 likes and over 500 comments.

Other examples might not have quite the following that Chalabi does but still point to a bright future for data journalism. The Pudding, an award-winning online publication determined to make data fun and bring us stories we didn’t know we needed, also has an active Instagram presence. Plus, the publication is dedicated to experimenting with data-driven storytelling and gambling on weird subjects—my personal favorite might be their analysis of pockets.

Final thoughts: Data journalism, like all forms of journalism, will continue to have its challenges and struggles. That said, given the creativity and depth of research found in so much data journalism today, publications and people willing to experiment with form, subject, and platform, and tools making it easier for data journalists to create visuals and publish their work, there’s a lot of room for optimism.

After graduating from Auburn University, Catherine Ramsdell became an educator. Her interests are oddly varied, but she enjoys teaching anything that involves a good story—from brand storytelling to mythology to data journalism.