This week, Profit will include two, seemingly contradictory ideas. We are replacing our “News Briefings” section with a “News in Numbers” section, where we will seek to tell stories through data visualisations. And we are also publishing an editorial outlining why we believe data journalism in Pakistan will likely continue to falter for the foreseeable future.
Our aim in starting the “News in Numbers” section is to acknowledge that there are often stories hidden in numbers and sometimes the best way to tell that story is to simply show what the numbers look like, with ideally meaningful visualisations to illustrate the point. We will seek to tell stories that highlight facts not often known by the public at large. This week, for instance, we highlight the rise of Multan as a hub of international aviation in Pakistan, with over 1 million passengers flying out of the City of Saints in 2018.
But on the larger point of the ability of Pakistan’s media to tell stories through numbers, we remain largely pessimistic. There has been considerable effort made by many professionals at many media organisations to integrate data journalism into their storytelling practices, and a valiant effort by some of the newer journalism schools to improve the quality of data journalism in Pakistan. But, we believe, these efforts are largely doomed to failure in the short to medium term.
The real problem with telling stories with numbers in an increasingly quantifiable world is that Pakistan’s journalists, by and large, are badly educated in mathematics. It is, of course, no fault of their own. Education quality in Pakistan in general is poor, and particularly poor when it comes to teaching people how to apply abstract principles to practical life.
The data journalism needs to have a comfort level with mathematical concepts to be able to do their job properly. They need to be comfortable with logarithms to be able to calculate rates of increase and decrease over multiple periods of time. Understanding at least basic calculus would help them be able to tell stories of numbers that change over time, with the second differential being a particularly useful concept in understanding if and when an inflection point is achieved. And the need to understand the mathematical logic of probability is obvious.
Too few people practicing journalism in Pakistan today are familiar with any of these concepts, including some people who might – on paper – possess relevant degrees. And as a result, very few people are capable of performing the kind of sophisticated analysis and storytelling that is increasingly needed to hold the powerful – both governments and businesses – to account.
We would end this editorial on a positive note, but we do not really have one, so instead we will leave it on this dark note. Enjoy your week!