A nose for news: Analytics-inspired journalism

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Most of what passes for news follows the well-trod path of he-said/she-said journalism. A reporter gets an assignment, interviews as many people as possible, then fills the story with on-air or in-print quotes woven together by the traditional who, what, where, when, and, maybe, why of the news.

The data, if any, comes from the story's sources. On occasion a journalist will back up assertions by referring to census figures, government studies, or analyst research. But editors want stories with quotes far more than ones with data.

One journalism effort is turning that tradition on its head. America Revealed uses analytics as the primary driver behind its stories. The Public Broadcasting System, which produces the program, has apparently concluded that facts make for compelling viewing. And, more importantly, myth-shattering journalism.

Take two examples. The first looks at how GPS data from taxi cabs in New York City proved city planners right when they decided to shut down an entire section of Broadway to car traffic in order to improve traffic flow. That is, they wanted less roadway to make it easier for drivers to cross town. A counter-intuitive notion that analytics shows to be true.

Another story on manufacturing in the United States doesn't interview long-term unemployed factory workers in the Rust Belt to underscore the conventional wisdom that America has lost its manufacturing muscle. It looks at data to show that manufacturing output in the country is actually growing.

By embracing analytics, journalism will be able to do more than try to "get to the bottom" of the story. It might actually get to the truth.

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