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Opportunities for critical thinking about data journalism

The 1988 compilation of essays Selected Issues in Logic and Communication included one by Ralph Johnson called “Poll-ution: Coping with Surveys and polls.”

Johnson wrote about critical thinking questions that help you decide whether to accept the conclusions in news coverage of polling data:

Polls are often reported and are increasingly significant in political life. We need to know how to assess reports of polls. Crucial information such as the nature of the sample and the precise question asked is often not reported. No matter how accurate sampling techniques are, a poll cannot provide valuable information if its question is misleading or loaded.*

I liked Jacob Harris’s recent essay in Source because it provided a similar collection of entry points for critical thinking questions about data journalism:

Data journalism does not fall perfect from the sky. It’s painstakingly built. … in my own experience it generally involves the following steps:

  • Acquisition
  • Cleaning
  • Loading
  • Verification
  • Analysis
  • Cherry-picking
  • Presentation
  • Maintenance

The fun of data journalism is that each of these steps can introduce errors that can affect the final story.

Read “The Times Regrets the Programmer Error” at Source

* When I added Johnson’s essay to my bibliography manager, I included this quote in the “Abstract” field. But I did not mark a page number and no longer have access to the book. My search for this essay in Google Books returns the beginning of the quote, so I feel pretty safe in assuming it is Johnson’s, but there is a chance I am wrong.

Photo by Anthony Catalano:


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