Pure structured information has no soul!

I love when I read a story in a newspaper about health insurance issue in Florida, and see a chart next to it that lets me find out in a glance how big the percentage of uninsured people is. I like to see a local map and see where Gainesville’s sex offenders live, and see a chart next to it that shows some data about the rate and types of sex crimes and the demographics of the victims and the offenders. I like to find out when and where the funeral of a person I knew is and get to know more about the dates of important events of her life, when I read her obituary. All the mentioned information can be considered structured information as Adrian Holovaty puts it:

So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers. Yet the information gets distilled into a big blob of text — a newspaper story — that has no chance of being repurposed.

As much as I appreciate “sliced-and-diced” structured information/data in the form of maps, charts, and graphs that can be constantly updated through a database, I mostly consider them as accessories to the main story. We need facts for sure. In a world where the Internet is growing beyond imagination and millions of people can easily and promptly use the Web to get information, newspapers should be really good at providing important facts people are interested in, to be able to compete and survive in the field. But I just can’t accept that “So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers.”

We should not forget why we need information, why people read newspapers, and even why journalism exists. The whole news business is about life, meaning, and feelings. We need the information about sex offenders to protect ourselves, yet we need to know more than statistics. We should know what happens that a person becomes a sex offender, how does a victim survive, how should you react when an issue as devastating as sexual assault happens to you or a family member. We need news stories because they affect the way we experience life.

So, I become a little weary when it comes to over-celebrating the new tools that can offer us structured information using databases and computer programs, and when we say that there is some form of information (specifically I’m talking about the information that is related to an “issue” story), that can’t be put in the form of a story (online or on paper). I’m afraid this approach to journalism will reduce everything to numbers, percentages, and figures.

For example, Adrian Holovaty says:

  • An obituary is about a person, involves dates and funeral homes.
  • A wedding announcement is about a couple, with a wedding date, engagement date, bride hometown, groom hometown and various other happy, flowery pieces of information.

And he goes on with some simillar examples and then concludes that:

See the theme here? A lot of the information that newspaper organizations collect is relentlessly structured. It just takes somebody to realize the structure (the easy part), and it just takes somebody to start storing it in a structured format (the hard part).

But I don’t agree with Holovaty on this part. I either don’t see the structured information in the news of a person’s death for example, or I wish not to see it put in a structured format. The structured data do not share with me the experiences, feelings, revelations, or extraordinary moments of a person’s life, while a well-written obituary makes me feel something about the deceased.

When we interview people, gather audio, or shoot video, we try to capture something interesting about life. A set of pure facts will not give us that experience, and it will also be boring! I’m not dismissing the importance of structured information, but I think the main job of a journalist is to tell an interesting story. Structured information can complement the interesting story to make an even better story, a more informative one.

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4 comments so far

  1. Well said!

    When my room mate /best friend died in March, it was tough seeing the formulaic obituary in the Gainesville Sun. I’m sure they did a good job of it for what facts they had, but there was no sense of “her”.

    The people at the Alligator ran a wonderful story on her, though, one that really spoke about her to friends and strangers alike. The writer interviewed me and other friends that came over to my home to talk. Just that experience alone was helpful to us, since we all wanted to share our memories of her. There was laughing and crying, and I was so grateful that the writer stayed as long as she did. When we saw the article, it was even more than we could have hoped for.

  2. Sanam on

    This debate about numbers versus experiences reminds me of a simillar debate about qualitative and quantitative research in academia. Perhaps journalists should take a look at that literature. Many scholars are now supporting a mixed method, for example including both statistics/surveys and in-depth interviews/ethnography. I think the mixed method works even better in journalism. (Our final story package can be considered an example of mixed method, where we have a Soundslide and a map/data chart.)

    By the way, I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s death. I’m glad though that the Alligator’s article gave you and your friends the opportunity to share your memories.

  3. Adrian Holovaty on

    I totally agree that pure structured information has no soul. The ideal, in my opinion, is to have a mix of both structure and narrative. It’s not an either-or thing.

  4. Sanam on

    Yes, I am all for the mix of both too. I just got the feeling from your post that you are more pro structure only. Thanks for clarification.


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