With a collaborative effort from journalists across the FT, data, statistics and data visualisation provides a deeper insight into news stories.
Data journalism is a medium that helps FT readers navigate the news and get the maximum information out of charts, graphics and tables. Through data and visual journalism the FT aims to meet the needs of subscribers by covering in-depth statistical issues and providing original analysis of data.
This is the first of a two part series where we sat down with the FT’s senior data-visualisation journalist John Burn-Murdoch. In part one, we learn more about data journalism and discuss Burn-Murdoch’s career thus far.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your work at the FT.
John Burn-Murdoch: Essentially, my job means I get to work on all sorts of stories where there is original data out there that I find, gather and analyse. I use this data to find out what’s going on in the world. My work adds to the wider data and visual journalism team which is happily growing these days. I think we’re up to around 30 people across the different global FT offices. The team and I cover all sorts of topics and make static, interactive and animated visualisations for FT.com.
How do you think data journalism changed throughout your career so far?
JBM: I started out in data journalism back in 2012. At that time it was a case of taking and using data that was already out there. Much of the data was from spreadsheets and relatively light touch. On many occasions we could only capture the main findings from the data we were given.
Since then, data journalism has evolved in two ways. Firstly, at the FT we now do much more original gathering and cleaning of the data ourselves. Secondly, we used to work with simple chart tools or bar charts. Now at the FT, we’re hand-crafting a lot more of these visualisations, starting from a blank canvas and ensuring they are a lot more interactive and immersive too.
Both the complexity of finding the data and then producing the visuals have changed massively.
The newsroom for data journalists has really evolved too. Less than 10 years ago, if you were a data journalist you were more on the sidelines of the newsroom. For me now, I’m interviewing and reporting far more and I have more bylines than I have in previous years.
What inspired you to take up data journalism and move less towards traditional journalism?
JBM: Nowadays, I think data journalism is seen as one of the many forms of conventional journalism. In terms of what led me down this route, I was studying journalism at university but always thought of myself as a numbers person. So when I went into journalism, I discovered that I could do journalism in a mathematical way. I understood how I could analyse things, work out what they mean and then present them in charts and graphs.
It was such a revelation for me. I had no idea that type of journalism existed before I set out on this path. I realised that I could use numbers to find and tell stories. It became so much more for me and I continued on this route.
Other than yourself, who is the team behind data journalism at the FT?
JBM: Alan Smith is the head of visual and data journalism across the FT. In the team we also have Martin Stabe as our data editor, Keith Fray is head of editorial statistics, Caroline Nevitt is the user experience editor and Steven Bernard is a senior visual journalist. More recently Sam Joiner has come in as the visual stories editor and his focus is on more ambitious, immersive and interactive projects. Of course, we also have around 20 multidisciplinary people across London, New York, Hong Kong, Manila.
Can you tell us some specific examples of your work and pieces you’ve contributed to at the FT?
JBM: A lot of these pieces are planned out but the final product can be a lot different to the initial idea. For example, I first made the Coronavirus tracker back in March 2020. This was meant to be a one-off chart for one story. Due to the strength of the tracker and the volume of response to it, I realised this would no longer be a one-off piece and we’ve been updating it daily ever since.
In my role I see a great mix of 24 hours turnaround pieces and others that require a longer time scale, either way it's always really rewarding.
On the other hand, there are pieces that we know will be big, ambitious projects from the beginning, and they take time to deliver. With the increasing relevance of climate change, one of the interactive charts I made a few years ago has become relevant again. This interactive tool from 2015 allows subscribers to see what actions different countries are taking to curb global emissions and work to solve the climate crisis.
You’ve been with the FT for around eight years, can you talk us through some of the top pieces you’ve worked on so far?
JBM: When I first joined the FT I was working closely with the news desk for quick turnaround pieces on climate change and economics. For a few years the team and I were focused on building bigger showpieces, like interactive climate change pieces and terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East. I’ve also worked on sports data and looked into the business of sports and how footballers measure up against athletes in major US sports.
Since starting at the FT, what I do, week to week, day to day has definitely changed a lot.
We’ve produced all sorts of coverage for elections, whether that be for the UK, US or European elections. In the days following an election, I’m always involved with the analysis and making sense of the election outcomes. During the Brexit referendum and the 2020 US election, I would work through the night and into the next day to analyse what we were learning from the voting results. It's been a real pleasure to have the opportunity to work on such projects.
I have the option to dip into different trends and a big focus for our team is looking at the effects of climate change. The FT’s new Climate Capital section is proving to be a very data-centric topic and that’s where data visualisation can help with understanding the climate challenges that the world is facing.
You’ve recently won Data Journalist of the Year at the Press Awards 2020 for your work on the Coronavirus tracker. Can you tell us how the tracker came to be?
JBM: The Coronavirus tracker is probably the most high profile piece we worked on in March and April 2020 and we spent a huge amount of time on it.
If you look at different waves of Covid around the world, from India to the US, we want to understand why this is happening. These are all questions are better answered by data.
With the pandemic, there’s this remarkable case where nobody knows anything because it is all happening in real time. No one knew what Covid was 18 months ago or how infectious it could be. We hadn’t heard of things like variants and even about the impact of the vaccines. It’s through data that all of this has unfolded.
As a data journalist, I find myself in a unique position where I’m familiar with finding and analysing data and working out what it is telling us. I feel like I’ve become a front-line specialist for the biggest story in the world over a relatively short period of time. It's been hugely rewarding, but a pretty wild ride.
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