Haiyan Jia is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication. She currently teaches classes on data journalism and data visualization. (Courtesy of Lehigh University)

Professor Haiyan Jia hosts virtual panel on the role of data in modern journalism

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Haiyan Jia, assistant professor in Lehigh’s Department of Journalism and Communication, hosted the virtual event “Data Journalism in the Years of Challenges,” with five panelists last week. 

Jia said she hosted the event because she has been looking at ways to “identify, locate and find usable data online.” 

Panelists included Troy Thibodeaux, data journalism team editor for The Associated Press; Andrew McGill, editor of interactive news for Politico; Meghan Hoyer, data director at The Washington Post; and Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer, staff writers at The Atlantic and co-founders of of the “COVID Tracking Project.” 

Each panelist began by highlighting key moments and challenges working in data journalism throughout the pandemic and a presidential election. 

Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer started the COVID Tracking Project to cover COVID-19 cases and other COVID-19 related news nationwide. The project was intended to only last 14 days during the initial stay-at-home order, but ended up lasting over a year.

“We started all of the data structures as a side project, but now we have (over) 365 days worth of data,” Madrigal said. 

Jia said data is a new source of evidence, and can be especially important when used to understand large-scale situations. She said data is driving the reporting of news and the way the news is being communicated and presented to the public. 

“We need large volumes of data to make sense of social factors that impact society,” Jia said. “Data right now is so available it becomes a new source to discover insights and review patterns.” 

Jia is interested in how people communicate with each other and how that communication can be improved. 

Specifically, her research has focused on the use of new technology and how people are using interactive media to aid in communication. Jia said challenges with data journalism arise because the way people communicate is being rapidly altered every day. 

“On one hand you can be completely optimistic where individuals are given the power to voice their opinions,” Jia said. “On the other hand there are huge challenges as well, such as how to distinguish facts and misinformation, how to ensure that society is being informed with reliable and trustworthy information and how traditional journalists have to compete with other types of sources that are becoming more and more prevalent on different platforms.”

When posed with the question of how artificial intelligence will affect journalism, the panelists stressed that artificial intelligence can improve how data is gathered and organized, but it is up to humans to interpret and filter that information. 

Thibodeaux said human intervention allows journalists to understand why certain information is explicable to humans, while artificial intelligence is important when investigating algorithms. 

Both Hoyer and McGill agreed. McGill said it is the job of humans to translate artificial intelligence findings into an understandable story. 

“What data gets collected and what data does not is not a human choice,” Hoyer said. “We must understand the methodologies in how things are collected.”

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