Two centuries ago journalists were called reporters because they drew their information from official reports — documents.
Then in the late 19th century a new source became part of journalistic practice: people, as interviews and eyewitness accounts were added to news articles.
The late 20th century saw reporting undergo another expansion in sourcing, as digital data was added to the journalist’s toolkit.
Although reports had included tables and other sources of data, the properties of digital data — filterable, sortable and searchable — have been significant, and make data a qualitatively different type of source.
How documents, people and data all lead to each other
Considering sourcing along those three dimensions — people, documents, and data — can be particularly useful when planning sourcing.
It can ensure your newsgathering is original and multi-layered and, in particular, it can help you think about how each type of source can lead to the another:
- Documents can lead you to people: an obvious example would be a webpage (a document) listing contact details — but you might also use a report or presentation to lead you to an expert (the author), or a document about a meeting, or livestream, to identify those people who were present
- Conversely, people can lead you to documents: an expert might tell you about a piece of research, or an interviewee might mention a message they received or a file they saw
- In the same way, people can lead you to data: supplying you with a spreadsheet or pointing you to a table in a report, for example
- And data can lead to people: sorting data to find the biggest or smallest values can help you identify a potential case study, or the place you need to visit to conduct interviews. Data often comes with contact details of someone you can speak to for more context, too
- Documents can lead you to data, too: it might be included in a table or appendix, linked or referred to
- And finally, data can lead to documents: for example, you might take a term in a dataset as a starting point to undertake background research, or use data to direct a Freedom of Information request for documents on a particular problem (e.g. numbers getting worse)
by Paul Bradshaw, International Journalists’ Network
Photo by said alamri on Unsplash