‘Data journalism’ doesn’t just have to be about science or mathematics-related topics. For one student newsroom in Virginia, data journalism was the foundation for a story about the first Muslim woman to run for state senate.
When Ghazala Hashmi ran for –and won– a seat in the Virginia state senate, many commenters took to social media platforms like Facebook to express their disapproval. Journalism students at Virginia Commonwealth University who had been following the election saw this as an opportunity to delve into data journalism.
VCU student Hannah Eason, now a digital content producer with NBC 29, spoke about the students’ project during a data journalism session at the SPJ Conference Sept. 3.
“[Another student] kept seeing these very hateful comments on Facebook about this election,” Eason said. “So we thought it would be a great story idea to look into some of the racism that was originating in these comments, but using social media to crowdsource, like man on the street but for social media.”
After bringing their idea to journalism professor Jeff South, they decided to use a website called exportcomments.com to collect data about the hateful comments.
“One of the great things about data journalism is that you can use that skillset to make your story not just anecdotal, but analytical,” South said. “We decided as a class that we would scrape the comments from all the stories about Hashmi’s victory. We thought it would be really neat if we could grab all the comments to those facebook stories and then analyze for the degree of vitriol of hateful, racist, xenophobia, things like that.”
According to Eason, ‘scraping’ the data from the comments gave the student journalists the ability to see what kind of rhetoric was most prevalent and gained the most likes.
“Once we had it all laid out in a very organized way, we could use the sorting function to go in and look for specific key words like ‘9/11’, ‘terrorism’, there was a lot of hateful name-calling,” Eason said. “It gave a good quantifying amount to each thing we were trying to look at. It gave us an idea of what was gaining the most traction.”
The journalism students worked together to decide the focus of the story, choosing to leave the commenters’ names out of the article but attach the full spreadsheet containing the names, comments and data they had collected.
“We felt that it was more important to focus on the verbiage and the quantifying data we had and kind of alleviate some information we didn’t know for certain,” Eason said. “I think it gave a little bit more accountability back to those comments, because at the end of the day, someone could go into our data file, find the exact link to the comment and perhaps reach out to the person who made the specific comment.”
The story, which was eventually picked up by the Associated Press and over 800 other news outlets worldwide, ended with an anecdotal quote from one Facebook commenter who pointed out the hypocrisy in accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, when the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. are committed by white males.
“We summarized that comment as the end to the story kind of like a kicker, essentially a gut punch at the end, to bring it back to that core level of storytelling and essentially giving it a sort of flow,” Eason said.
Data journalism, as the students at VCU learned, is not just for breakthroughs in science and mathematics: it can also be utilized to break down social issues in quantifiable and impactful ways.