Side-Stepping Safeguards, Data Journalists Are Doing Science Now

Article by Irineo Cabreros: “News stories are increasingly told through data. Witness the Covid-19 time series that decorate the homepages of every major news outlet; the red and blue heat maps of polling predictions that dominate the runup to elections; the splashy, interactive plots that dance across the screen.

As a statistician who handles data for a living, I welcome this change. News now speaks my favorite language, and the general public is developing a healthy appetite for data, too.

But many major news outlets are no longer just visualizing data, they are analyzing it in ever more sophisticated ways. For example, at the height of the second wave of Covid-19 cases in the United States, The New York Times ran a piece declaring that surging case numbers were not attributable to increased testing rates, despite President Trump’s claims to the contrary. The thrust of The Times’ argument was summarized by a series of plots that showed the actual rise in Covid-19 cases far outpacing what would be expected from increased testing alone. These weren’t simple visualizations; they involved assumptions and mathematical computations, and they provided the cornerstone for the article’s conclusion. The plots themselves weren’t sourced from an academic study (although the author on the byline of the piece is a computer science Ph.D. student); they were produced through “an analysis by The New York Times.”

The Times article was by no means an anomaly. News outlets have asserted, on the basis of in-house data analyses, that Covid-19 has killed nearly half a million more people than official records report; that Black and minority populations are overrepresented in the Covid-19 death toll; and that social distancing will usually outperform attempted quarantine. That last item, produced by The Washington Post and buoyed by in-house computer simulations, was the most read article in the history of the publication’s website, according to Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi.

In my mind, a fine line has been crossed. Gone are the days when science journalism was like sports journalism, where the action was watched from the press box and simply conveyed. News outlets have stepped onto the field. They are doing the science themselves….(More)”.