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Tom Meagher


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Nerds need credit too

It seems odd in 2012 that in some newsrooms the data journalists don’t get the same kind of credit for their work that other reporters receive. I suppose it’s understandable, if NICAR-L is any indication, because to some of our colleagues data work is a mysterious and opaque contribution to a story and thus they don’t quite know how or when to give us a byline.

This is the policy we used when I was the CAR reporter at the Herald News, and it was heavily modeled (in some parts verbatim) on the one adopted by Rob Gebeloff, then of The Star-Ledger and now at the New York Times. This slightly updated policy also guides us today at The Star-Ledger as we decide when our work merits a byline. It’s a good place for newsrooms to start the conversation about the work of their data people.

  1. The data journalist is available every day for assistance, large and small, on daily, breaking and enterprise stories. The reporter is here to help locate data. When another reporter or editor asks for a quick fact here or there (such as a basic Census figure), no credit is necessary. It’s part of the job.
  2. Many times, the quick fact search turns into an analysis of data. When this analysis produces “proprietary information” that supports a story, the data journalist should receive a tagline on the story. For example, a colleague wants a complete breakdown of Census data for a particular neighborhood—a task that would require the reporter to assemble the data piecemeal from several tables or sources—this would create proprietary information unique to our news gathering. If this information is even just a few paragraphs of the story, a tagline is appropriate.
  3. If the data journalist does a significant analysis of data that creates proprietary information that becomes the thesis of a story, he or she will receive a byline. Even if the data journalist does not write another word in the published piece, his or her reporting forms the basis of a story and thus warrants a byline.

For example, the journalist analyzes a new set of data released by a government agency and finds that homeowners in suburban Passaic County are scooping up flood insurance hand over fist. The reporter assembles the analyzed data and passes it on to the real estate reporter who finds additional sources for quotes and writes the story. The nut graf of the story should say “a Herald News analysis of TK data has found…” and the data journalist shares the byline with the other reporter.

-Tom Meagher, Herald News, July 2006, via Rob Gebeloff at The Star-Ledger