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What PRs need to know about data journalism

More people are working in journalism in Britain than at any point since 2010. With the pandemic accelerating the evolution of media and journalists into new digital platforms to maintain audience reach and stay ahead of other breaking news platforms, there are now an estimated 12,000 more journalists than PRs in the United Kingdom.

Coupled with the growth of digital media and the influx of journalists, the pandemic has also had knock-on effects in shifting people’s trust in news sources. The importance of clear, factual and impartial reporting is more essential than ever before. As a result, enter the rise of the data journalist - spearheaded by the Guardian nearly a decade ago now. These days every outlet now has a data journalist team, seeking to locate new data sources to inform or fact check the news agenda.

There is so much data out there it can be hard for journalists to determine what is newsworthy and what is not, not to mention assessing credible sources of information. The continued rise of data journalism coincides with the proliferation of tools to capture that information. As PRs, learning to utilise data to strengthen our pitches by providing added value will help stories land and build journalist relationships in this vast new landscape.

Here are the top five things PRs ought to know about landing data journalism.

1. Let data tell you the story

Rather than trying to manipulate and fit data into your existing pitch, let data tell you what the story is. A good way to do this is by starting with a general hypothesis, checking the available insight, uncovering the core story and building a pitch around it. In many ways, this flips the longstanding ‘consumer poll’ approach on its head. Even a lack of proof for your expected hypothesis can, in some cases, work in your favour as it will demonstrate a lack of awareness around an issue. We find this quite often when providing online search trends to prove or disprove public interest in a particular issue or topic.

It is vitally important to keep an open mind when working with data to ensure that it isn’t being interpreted in a preconceived way, which brings us to the following point.

2. Use data journalism to combat fake news

By removing bias at the interpretation stage, we can tell more factual stories. Readers should be able to trust the accuracy of a story in a world where it is becoming harder and harder for facts to break through the noise. Using tools to include well-sourced data in your pitches signifies to journalists that there is a real story out there rather than spin.

3. Make data pop

Visual aids like infographics help bring the data to life and can make a point stick. As PRs we are aware of the power a strong set of images can have on getting an article published. Visualising key stats through easy-to-understand graphics is an effective storytelling tool. You don’t even need to be a graphic design whizz since many data tools can formulate the graphics for you. This also eases the workload of your journalists - many outlets will have their own data visualisation teams or preferences, but helping the media to understand the information you are sending them is a helpful first step. Not every contact is proficient in Excel.

4. Understand sentiment

Educate yourself and get a clearer picture of how people feel about an issue before going out to journalists. You can analyse social media sentiment about a particular topic by identifying the type of language used (positive, negative or neutral), hashtags and emojis deployed. This means you can leverage the public’s existing interest - and shifts on a particular issue - to your advantage when pitching a story.

5. Measure your success through data

There is much more to be said around the value of data in crafting stories and pitches, but equally, data can help measure the success of your outputs. Tracking spikes in search data for your story topic + outlet or journalist can contribute to your post-campaign reporting and provide additional metrics for a nice news story on your client’s website or own case studies. Becoming more data literate doesn’t just mean how it can be used to meet client objectives, but also how we can prove our own effectiveness to clients too.

The breadth and capabilities of data cannot be understated. News stories, potentially ground-breaking ones, can be found in even the tiniest amounts of information. Don’t be put off by the spreadsheets of numbers, instead, understand that data is another tool in our PR toolkit for interpreting events and topics. Learning to leverage numbers in stories provides valuable insight and helps in combating the growing stream of mis- and dis-information circulating online.

The democratisation of information has been a key influence in the rapid rise of data journalism. We PRs always aim to be ahead of the curve. Data journalism is not a fad or niche, but is in fact, the future of journalism.

Written by Laura Morelli, head of media for UK and Australia at marketing platform Semrush

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