Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.