Neal Mann & Simon Rogers on social media and datajournalism at Activate

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 5 July 2012

Neal Mann and Simon Rogers appeared on the same panel at the Guardian’s London Activate Summit, talking about some of the ways that digital technology has changed the way that they carry out their roles as journalists.

Neal Mann

As @fieldproducer, Neal Mann has carried out some interesting social media driven journalism for first Sky News and now at the Wall Street Journal. He stated that news organisations were struggling to reach certain parts of the audience via digital technology, but that people like himself could reach out into the social media universe and get to those people. His argument wasn’t that “social media will replace long form journalism” or any of those other straw men that get rolled out from time to time, but that by using social media you can engage people with a story at those moments when they are sitting idly at their desk flicking through Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

He spoke about a recent trip he’d undertaken to Burkina Faso. He’d wanted to see if, by using just the social media channels, he could tell a story about the country. He found that simple tools like a Google Map plotting where he’d been were getting much higher levels of traffic - five times as much, he suggested - as the long form article produced for the Guardian about a similar trip to Mozambique. At the time I did see some criticism of the way he covered the trip on social media from other journalists, and chairing the panel Kath Viner suggested that the level of attention he got was due to the fact that it was him personally doing the trip and that people followed him as a person, rather than that as a general rule this sort of coverage would perform well.

Neal agreed to an extent, and said that he felt it was important for journalists to interact with their followers, and to build trust. Once they’ve seen you go through the cycle of reporting on a few different stories, he said, the audience begins to be able to trust you as soon as you tackle a new subject.

Simon Rogers

I’ve seen Simon speak about datajournalism and the Guardian Datablog on what seems like countless occasions, and this time he had some very interesting things to say around the popularity of the Guardian’s Datablog, and the reporting of last year’s riots.

Firstly he said that when they had launched the blog, they had expected it to have a very niche audience of developers and techies. In fact it has become one of the most popular on guardian.co.uk and has developed a very mainstream audience. They find that for almost any set of data they produce, there are people passionately invested in that topic prepared to argue the toss over specific data points and the issues they illustrate below the line in the comments at great length.

With regard to the riots he made a point that almost immediately David Cameron came out and said there was no link between poverty and the lawlessness. Simon thought that was a rather odd statement to make on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, and so the data team have worked to map where criminal damage was committed, and where the perpetrators of those crimes lived. The link is abundantly clear. People think data is cold, he said, but interviewing those who took part in the riots, combined with the data view, is a much richer way of telling the story.

He recommended reading Darrell Huff’s “How to lie with statistics” book - written back in the fifties but still an essential primer in spotting how governments, businesses and journalists mis-use and abuse numbers to bamboozle the public.

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