Digital Publishing Guest Columns
4 mins read

The rise and rise of data journalism

It’s December 2021 and the headlines are full of numbers and statistics once again. 

Headline, top-of-the-hour news has rarely been quite as full as over the last two years of news stories where the statistics themselves have been the news. While often the backbone of stories, whether unemployment figures or inflation, stats are front and centre to the global news agenda. Covid is a global and consistently urgent issue which people need to be kept abreast of, but the integral role of data in the modern news agenda runs much deeper than the event of a global pandemic. 

It’s over a decade now since the Guardian first launched its groundbreaking Datablog, which became a repository for unusual and hard to believe stats, and was one of the first mainstream and popular jumping-off points for data journalism in the modern news agenda. News reporting is often about finding the unusual, the outlying examples that prove the overall trends, but also finding what is unique or going against accepted wisdom. The Guardian’s pioneering Datablog rose to prominence as the place to find out, and see in uniquely visualized form, how many people James Bond had killed over the course of his career on celluloid – but it also coincided with a major shift in the demands on modern journalism. 

Dropping advertising revenues, shifts to online for ‘free’ access to up-to-the-minute news, and of course the democratization of platforms where anyone can self publish ‘news’ and opinion have all muddied the waters for modern newspapers. Filter bubbles and a world where spreading fake news is often more easy, more entertaining to people and more likely to generate social currency in online spaces than real life facts has driven many longstanding bastions of authoritative global news further into the data. Engaging with data can come in myriad forms from fact checking the words of politicians’ speeches to attempting to counter the spread of ‘fake news’ from dubious sources and redressing the perpetuation of misinformation. Whatever the purpose, any heritage and well-regarded news brands these days have thriving and growing data journalism departments, who recognize that helping people to understand often complicated truths is one of the foundations of their profession. Facts, from real and traceable sources, are also often the greatest weapon in the face of dubious or even malicious misinformation. 

The world has often turned to journalists whose training and the notable institutions behind them have fundamentally communicated trust, while being held to standards and practices beyond the usual ‘citizen journalist’. It is this trust which is now the main weapon in news outlets’ arsenals against fake news propagation. Clearly and openly citing information sources not only showcases that content has been produced to the highest journalistic standards, it throws it into sharp relief when those proof points don’t exist. A telling example of this is that, according to our UK search engine data, searches for ‘fake news’ actually dropped during the pandemic. Direct, statistically-rooted information from trusted sources reinforces people’s faith in journalism. 

As journalism moves further along the roaring 2020s, data will become ever more central to its core proposition – not only when it comes to servicing audiences with information which may be individually relevant but also to maintain that edge over less scrupulously produced online content. It also reflects the concurrent rise of the big data age – where technology’s growth is creating vast comet trails of information to uncover new or previously unseen global truths. Sources of this information are proliferating from search engine enquiries to sentiments shared in online spaces and sometimes, these conversations alone become the main headline rather than supporting information, such as the spread of racist emoji use in football. From very basic comparisons of online trends through to detailed multilayered investigations with the greatest levels of scrutiny, every accredited journalist these days draws on data journalism to a greater or lesser extent.    

Clarity and accuracy in reporting has rarely been as vital as during a long-running global pandemic, but it is also reinforcing to the public that authoritative news comes backed by independently verified facts and figures, often front and centre in reporting. As many news organizations forge ahead into a future with polarizing audiences and seek to retain that reporting integrity in the face of online breaking news and widely shared opinion, it will be the solid core of data journalism at their heart which communicates that all-important trust to readers, now and in decades to come.

Laura Morelli
UK Head of Media, Semrush

Semrush is a leading online visibility management SaaS platform that enables businesses globally to run search engine optimization, pay-per-click, content, social media and competitive research campaigns and get measurable results from online marketing. Semrush offers insights and solutions for companies to build, manage, and measure campaigns across various marketing channels. Semrush, with over 76,000 paying customers, is headquartered in Boston and has offices in Philadelphia, Dallas, Prague, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, and Limassol.