(Cover Photo: An investigation by radio reporter Angelina Mosher Salazar analyzed shootings during a protest against police brutality in the US city of Kenosha. Image: Shutterstock)
Rowan Philp published in "GIJN Data Journalism" the following under the title: "12 Tips to Make Data Come Alive in Radio Reporting":
While investigating the shooting of three Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States last year, radio reporter Angelina Mosher Salazar found a series of poorly-focused Facebook Live video clips. More telling than the video was the audio and time sequence from those clips, which showed a disturbing camaraderie between police and an armed 17-year-old who, just 15 minutes later, would shoot into the crowd, allegedly killing two people and injuring a third.
The victims were among a group in Kenosha, Wisconsin, protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in the back. Mosher Salazar’s report revealed that law enforcement officers at the protest praised the heavily armed counter-protest group, with one saying: “We really appreciate you guys, we really do.” Officers also handed out bottled water to the rifle-toting teenager.
“I feel like the audio — and radio itself — was actually the perfect medium for this data-informed story,” says Mosher Salazar, who works at station WUWM, part of the National Public Radio group. “It really stripped out everything that could be distracting to the audience from what was really happening in this moment.”
Without a primary visual medium, and with long-held conventions on limiting the number of statistics in audio scripts, radio journalism has trailed other media formats in data journalism. However, experts say new tools and techniques can help radio reporters broaden their storytelling repertoires, populate digital versions of their audio stories with in-depth data, and empower listeners to visualize more complex datasets without any actual visuals.
Nuzulack Dausen, managing director of the Tanzanian journalism training group Nukta Africa, says these skills are especially important for accountability in sub-Saharan Africa, where radio is the dominant source of information.
“Radio remains the major source of news here, and especially in rural areas; in some countries, it accounts for primary information received by two-thirds of the whole population,” Dausen explains. “The extent to which it can support accountability journalism is big because these audiences cause leaders to react. Data is an important tool, and radio reporters need ways to access it and find leads from it for themselves, and to contextualize and simplify it for listeners.”
Tanzania suggests there is much potential. The East African country has a population of nearly 60 million, and internet penetration there has jumped from 34% to 49% in the past five years. At the same time, “remarkably,” Dausen says, the number of radio stations has grown at a similar rate. These twin phenomena offer an opportunity for radio reporters to direct more listeners to in-depth data presentations on their station websites.
Dausen says radio data training in Tanzania is currently focused on contextualizing information, finding simple alternatives to percentages, and on “interviewing spreadsheets,” because concepts like data analysis are intimidating to many reporters.
“Everyone fears numbers, and journalists here are not very exposed to technology, so we’re starting slowly with narrative concepts they already know, rather than bombarding reporters with tools they’ve never heard of,” he says. “For instance, we’re teaching them that columns in a spreadsheet are just like human sources — ‘You can interview this column about gender and age, and comparing the answer to other columns tells you what it means.’”
Like Mosher Salazar, Dausen believes radio reporting can offer advantages over other media formats in personalizing and contextualizing simple data points.
It can even offer advantages in data presentation. For instance, sound allows a more visceral understanding of highly unequal numbers, as the BBC showed by using the sound of stacked gold bars to illustrate the gap between the growth of workers’ wages and corporate profits in this audiograph.
In a session on the topic at the NICAR21 data journalism conference — which is organized by Investigative Reporters & Editors — Mosher Salazar shared a virtual panel with Patrick Skahill, a reporter with WNPR in Connecticut, and Ally Jarmanning, a senior reporter at Boston’s WBUR station.
They shared tips on how data should be incorporated into radio scripts, and tools reporters can use to bring that data to life — from talking spreadsheets to directing listeners to online interactive maps.
“I think we’ve been lazy in radio — saying we don’t need to use numbers because our listeners don’t like numbers,’” says Mosher Salazar. “Yeah, they don’t, but we can be creative in how we use data for breaking news and impactful stories. It’s a necessary tool, and we need to boost our skillset as journalists.”
Jarmanning says there are valid reasons why many editors restrict data in radio reports to just two or three numbers, including the fact that listeners are often focused on driving, cooking, or other parallel activities.
“Listeners just can’t hold on to much information, and I try, especially in short pieces, to be very limited in the amount of numbers I’m stating,” says Jarmanning. “But there are creative solutions for data presentation, and [online] charts definitely help.”
All three panelists noted that a radio tradition of avoiding numbers has created an environment where those reporters who are interested in data often find themselves with little help at their stations.
“If you are at a small shop, like me, maybe you are the sole pioneer — not only are you the only person requesting, cleaning, and organizing the data, but you could also be the pioneer of the concept of using data journalism at your radio station,” notes Mosher Salazar. “But there are people in the community who will help you. And, at a time in the pandemic where I’ve become separated from my sources, data has become a solid, dependable source, and one I don’t have to worry about getting COVID from.”
The three panelists’ tips included these:
Skahill warns that — because radio reports need to use fewer data points — radio reporters need “to triple-check and quadruple-check” the accuracy of those numbers.
However, he echoed his fellow NICAR panelists in stating that the biggest step is for reporters to summon the confidence to use data.
“It’s like fighting impostor syndrome,” Skahill says.” No one needs to bestow the ‘data journalist’ title upon you at a radio station: if you’re curious, then learn this stuff and just do it.”