Round-ups SXSW

SXSW: ‘Excel is okay’ and other tweet-size insights for data journalists and news nerds

Storybench has boots on the ground covering SXSW from multiple angles, including immersive storytelling, UX design and more. For those that didn’t make it to Austin this year, the next best option is to follow what’s happening on Twitter.

For data journalists looking to see what’s new and innovative in the realm of media, the hashtag #sxswnewsnerds compiled a bunch of great advice from a panel that featured Sarah Cohen, from Arizona State University, Jon Loyens, CPO at, Troy Thibodeaux, from the Associated Press, and Allison McCann, data reporter for VICE News. You can also hear the full panel here.

Excel is okay

More than once I have heard from people I interviewed for Storybench that it is unrealistic to demand from journalists that they become coding whizzes in R, Python, and Javascript on top of being masterful interviewers and prolific writers.


But it seems that the bar is set at spreadsheets, once described as “the most important programming language in the world today” by Ben Zorn, a data scientist from Microsoft Research.



Interview the data

The foundation of good journalism is multiple sources of information. There is no reason for data to be treated differently. Be skeptical of what data tells you and confirm it elsewhere — interviews with specialists and the people who collected the data, different datasets, etc.

Know the caveats and limitations

How was this data collected? Who collected it and for what purpose? What can it explain and what can’t it? Those are some of the questions a good reporter asks when working with data. The inferences that can’t be made from a dataset are just as important as the ones that can be.

A reporter must also effectively communicate those caveats and limitations to the audience. After the 2016 election, there has been an ongoing discussion on communicating uncertainty, probability, and predictive analysis in journalism. It remains an issue.


The concept of open-source is central to the “news nerds” community. Organizations like BuzzFeed News and FiveThirtyEight often publish their code on GitHub, while others like The New York Times have developed and released open-source tools, such as ai2html, that other newsrooms can take advantage of.


Data journalists tend to make everything about the data or that visualization. But sometimes those things are not the answer. A good editor goes a long way in helping reporters exercise constraint. Think about how one can best convey the given information. That’s a mantra we should follow for every single story.

And when there’s no data?

Create it! It sounds simplistic – and collecting data can on its own be a beast – but it’s one way journalists can push governments and other institutions to start recording data.

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Felippe Rodrigues

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