Research: Defining And Describing Data Journalism

February 6, 2015 • Digital News, Specialist Journalism • by

The first national study of data journalism in Germany reveals that the sector is still small, but has potential. The qualitative study found that data journalists typically consider themselves to be society’s watchdogs. They usually work in small teams, are interested in politics and economics and, unlike many traditional journalists, they do not consider themselves to be gatekeepers of the news.

Data journalism is different from traditional journalism because visualisation is so important and investigative results are transparent – including the disclosure of research results. Our study, of 35 professional data journalists, conducted at the Macromedia University, Cologne and the Westphalian University, Gelsenkirchen, also found that data journalists are numerate and understand social science methods and statistics.

The study’s main findings are summarised below:

Definition of Data Journalism

Although it describes one of the fastest growing areas in journalism, the term ‘data journalism’ is still not well-defined.  We found that the core of data journalism is the collection, analysis and preparation of digitized information with the aim of a journalistic publication.

Therefore, it is 1) a special form of investigation that wants to develop stories from data; 2) a special form of interpretation of research material, which is based on statistical measures; and all too often 3) a specific form of presentation that wants to make the key messages graphically visible, often as an interactive web application. 4) Sometimes the publication of data sources and raw data sets in terms of the Open Data approach is additionally regarded as a fundamental component of data journalism.

Differences to traditional journalism

The study found significant differences compared to traditional journalism, including the importance of visualization, the lower level of journalistic selection and a higher transparency of investigative results. In the case of interactive web designs, the selection and interpretation of the data is often left to the recipient. The user himself can steer the interactive application or develop an individualized setting, for example, by clicking on a map for his immediate surroundings. The data journalist is thus less a gatekeeper than a traditional journalist.

Finally, data journalism differs from traditional journalism in the disclosure of research results (original data sets). Data journalists also need a strong sense for numbers and a certain knowledge of social science methods and statistics.

Role of self-understanding of data journalists

The monitoring and checking of politics, economics and society is much more a central concern for data journalists compared to the totality of German journalists. In summary, data journalists see themselves particularly strong in the role of a watchdog, they do not see their task as offering either entertainment or relaxation.

Mode of working

The data journalists surveyed rarely work alone. In general, data journalism is organised as a team. This contains usually two to three people. There are three professional profiles within data journalism that can be separated quite clearly from each other: the journalist, the programmer and the graphic artist/designer.

Clients of data journalists

The expert data journalists interviewed described data journalism as a service that is demanded primarily by Germany’s national print media (especially Stern, Spiegel, SZ, taz) or is published in the blogs of the authors. TV and radio stations work with data journalists only in exceptional cases.


Almost all respondents expect a significant increase in data journalistic projects over the next five years. One reason is that – catalysed by the Open Data Movement – more and more data is becoming available. The tools for data collection, analysis and preparation are also getting better and easier to use. Additionally, data journalism is being taught in numerous seminars and courses, so that the wider application of these skills is likely. Finally, data journalism skills offer young professionals and freelancers a niche in a competitive market.

Socio demographic characteristics of the sample

The respondents were at the time of the survey between 25 and 49 years old. The mean age was 35.6 years (SD 6.32), which is about five years younger than the average of all German journalists (Weischenberg et al. 2006, p. 186). All respondents went to University, 80 percent finished with a diploma. In most cases they studied either social sciences (type journalist) or computer sciences (type programmers and designers). Around one third studied journalism or communication studies as a major or at least as a minor. More than two-thirds worked for some time as traditional journalists (at least internship). This is slightly more than in the comparative study investigating all journalists in Germany (Weischenberg et al. 2006, p. 265). Twelve out of 35 respondents, or about one third, have a permanent job. The others work independently as free lancers. Only one out of seven of the respondents uses the term “data journalist” to describe his professional status. One single person in the sample carries an official title with regard to data journalism: “Head of Data Journalism” at ZEIT Online.


According to the predominantly qualitative research questions, expert interviews were conducted with professional actors in data journalism. The expert survey was carried out with 35 specifically identified “data journalists” – according to self-assessment. These were – by definition of the scientists – almost all data journalists working in Germany at the time of the survey (14.01.2013 to 01.03.2013). Due to the distribution of the experts on all bigger German cities, telephone interviews were performed from 30 to 110 minutes (with only one face-to-face exception).


The phenomenon data journalism has gained greater attention since WikiLeaks released US diplomatic cables. Data journalistic projects like the Guardian’s “Investigate your Member of Parliament’s expenses” or The Washington Post’s “The hidden life of guns”, are considered to be best practice cases in the English-speaking world. Among the best known data journalism projects in Germany are “Parteispendenwatch” of taz, the “Parlameter” by ZDF and the “Train-Monitor” by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Long version of the study

The study appeared in issue 4/2014 of the Journal of communication science Publizistik (Vol. 59/4, pp. 411-433).


Weischenberg, Siegfried/Scholl, Armin/Malik, Maja (2006). Die Souffleure der Mediengesellschaft: Report über die Journalisten in Deutschland Broschiert, Konstanz: UVK.


Pic credit: Flikr: rh2hox


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