APU Big Data & Analytics Careers & Learning Cyber & AI Everyday Scholar Podcast

Effectively Using Data to Tell the Real Story

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Artsand Dr. Amber Narro, professor, Southeastern Louisiana University

Presenting data and putting it into local context is the most effective way to get the public to understand issues, but it’s also one of the greatest challenges for journalists. In this episode, AMU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to journalist and professor Dr. Amber Narro about the challenges of teaching journalists how to understand and effectively use data in their reporting. Learn why it’s so important for journalists to start with data and let it drive the direction of the story, rather than trying to find data that supports a preconceived story angle. Also learn about the value of localizing data so readers understand how information applies to their lives as well as the challenges aspiring journalists face entering the competitive media landscape.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to Dr. Amber Narro, full professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. And our conversation today is about storytelling with data. And welcome, Amber.

Dr. Amber Narro: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Looking forward to it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. I’m excited about this conversation. So you teach students and journalists to appreciate data. What is it like to go through that process for them to really appreciate and essentially respect data?

Dr. Amber Narro: I think that’s an interesting question. It’s a challenge in the very beginning when we first mention the word data in a class or data, however you’d like to say it, their eyes glaze over. They’re very concerned about how they’re going to use math in their stories. And the first thing they think about is numbers and, “I’m going to have to number crunch.” “Probably so,” is what I typically tell them.

But a lot of times we’re grabbing data that’s already out there, information that other people have collected and we’re just trying to relate it to a story or give it a local angle so that it makes sense. Students are typically afraid but once they see that that data can actually enhance their stories or serve as an additional source for their stories, they calm down a little bit and they realized that it’s all about credibility.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really love how you said that it’s all about credibility. It reminds me of students in general, when non math students, when they go to college, they’re really afraid of math, which is too bad. But one thing that all students should have is some sort of math literacy, some sort of numbers literacy, they don’t have to do trig, or calculus, or know all these fancy math, which I don’t know how to do either, but they need basic statistical literacy. Can you briefly explain why it’s important for journalists and also just for people in general to have your basic statistical literacy?

Dr. Amber Narro: Not only is it important for journalists to understand what they’re writing, but it’s also important for them to understand how to relate that to their audience. Instead of just saying, “This tax is going to be this much,” to actually be able to explain that and its implications. Oftentimes we’ll see data and take it at face value and just say, “Oh, well, 10% of the population believes this,” and think that that’s not a big number, but when you start relating it to other things like if it has consequences, then that 10% is larger than what that number seems.

So in the very beginning of my classes I always go over these words that are very much overused in journalism, particularly, and I’m a broadcaster too, I’m in radio, but we use it all the time, “many” or “most.” And you have to be careful with the word most, because most means 50% plus one, it means that more than the less is saying something or more than the lesser believes.

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And you’ve got to be careful with those words and used irresponsibly, they can be pretty damaging to a story. Another one is “many.” Many means different things. Many marbles in your hands might be 40, but if you’ve had many house fires, that might just be three.

So it depends on how you use words and how you’re relating them in your stories and localizing them to how these words play. So when you use data and you replace those dreamy words, like “most” and “many” with actual numbers, then they start to make sense to your public and that’s just responsible.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like how you said responsible, because words are extraordinarily difficult, which words we choose is actually one of the more important things we ever do when we write articles. When I was a young writer, I would use words, I would say irresponsibly, because they didn’t quite know what they meant or how to properly use them.

It reminds me of when really interesting stat that you find at Pew Research is the growing number of nuns, not nones, but nuns as far as religious affiliation. So over the last few generations, nuns has gone up from single digits to about 25%.

And also, depending on, if you look at Pew or Gallup that’ll range from 20-30%, but then when you look at how it’s reported, sometimes it’s like the percentage of nuns is increasing. Other times, you’ll see it more and more Americans are leaving the church. Or other ones will say, “America is becoming an irreligious country.” And you’ll literally see these headlines with the exact same data point in which the percentage of nuns is still a minority for sure, 25% is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not like you said, most, which has 51%.

Dr. Amber Narro: And one of the things you’re bringing to mind right now is there’s actually a story that I would encourage you and your listeners to look up. It’s on Shelly Pennefather and they go through a lot of things. She was a basketball player, played in college, highly recruited, and also played professionally and decided to leave professional basketball for one of the most strict nun orders in the world.

And they go through all of this data with her talking about how many hours that she has to stay away from her family, or stay away from speaking. There’s so many things that they’re not “allowed” to do in this order. They walk around barefoot.

So there’s tons of different things that they are not allowed to do in this religious area. But the story is very much driven by data. And one of the things that I ask my students when I get them, I almost play this video in every class and it’s on YouTube, ESPN did it, Shelly Pennefather is her name.

One of the things that I always ask my class is, “Who’s the reporter?” after it’s over. Nobody knows, nobody’s got a clue. And it’s actually Robin Roberts who is doing the narration of this story. She didn’t report the story from the very beginning, but she did the narration of this and nobody can figure out who it is in the end.

And it’s because you’re so focused on all of these things that this nun can or cannot do that you’re just not paying attention to who’s telling the story. And as journalists isn’t that what we’re supposed to do is tell the story and let the story be the center of attention rather than ourselves?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: With media and today and it’s not that it’s anything new to contemporary humans where there’s a drive for fame and journalists also are driven and some won the Pulitzer or any other number of awards, so they want it to be about them, but good journalism is about finding the truth. And good journalism is about putting that story out there. So can you give us some examples of storytelling with data? You just gave us one, but can you give us some other ones?

Dr. Amber Narro: Sure. And look, and that’s simple data. It’s simple how many hours she’s inside? How many years? And look, one of the things that she couldn’t do was embrace her family for 25 years. So the story wraps around the fact that she’s going to hug her mother, probably what will be the last time ever, because by the next time her mother is up in age and she may not be with us any longer.

So you start thinking about those numbers and how that simple data can drive a story. And then all of a sudden people start paying attention just because it’s just simple numbers. But you can also do things like with the CDC numbers that are released, comparing them to local data, local information. And we’ve all been doing that in our heads for the last year and that’s what’s been driving this pandemic is the data.

And as soon as any health care story that doesn’t have a good set of data in it, it’s probably not worth the paper that it’s written on because you can talk all day long, but until you put real numbers to things and see how it affects things, it’s hard to grasp that information.

Another thing that college students get real frustrated with is sometimes they can’t get a whole lot of crime statistics on campus. So crime statistics are also very strengthening for stories as well, both to let people see how much crime is on campus, but also by the way, everyone in universities to let people see how it compares to the rest of the community, to the rest of the state and looking at those comparison data. A lot of times you see that it’s not as bad as you think, or maybe it does need some attention. So it actually brings a light to a story, or it lets people see that it’s not so bad as we thought it was. It’s bringing reality to situations.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So here’s a question, obviously we’ve all gone through COVID, COVID’s not done as of today, May of ’21. And even when COVID started, I remember I watched a Black Death documentary and back in 1348, it didn’t really go away for four years. And after I watched that I’m like, “This is going to be here a while,” and here we are a year-plus later. So my question with COVID is, how have people interpreted and misinterpreted the data? How is it that some people ignore the data?

Dr. Amber Narro: Just as a personal aside, we lost my mother-in-law in March to COVID and that was March 2021. That was not March, 2020. We are on the end of it, we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we think, but she passed away and her appointment was scheduled to get her vaccine.

So data is only as real as it is personal. Isn’t it? So you only believe it when it starts hitting you and then you start seeing the numbers and start believing them. As long as you’ve got in your mind that something’s not real if you don’t have to face it, then all the better, but when it’s in your face, then those numbers start making sense.

Also, on the tail end of that question, there’s been so much irresponsible reporting of data that it’s hard for consumers sometimes to believe what’s going on. And by reporting, I don’t necessarily mean mainstream media or professional media because we’ve got a social media that we start believing data and information from as well as just the net in general, people are kind of numb to data. So you have to be very careful with making it real.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like how you said data is only as real as it is personal. And that totally makes sense, because if you live in a community or if you live in a more rural area where the number of COVID cases are five or three, and then it doesn’t impact you. I can see how you’d be like, “Well, this isn’t really real.”

But then people are so limited by their own experience about what’s around them that you have to always look at the world and your community and the people around you, and then just see what’s going on and not base everything on your own lived experiences, because everybody has a different lived experience. So can you describe some storytelling with data, say, in business or in academics?

Dr. Amber Narro: Sure. In academics specifically, some of the stories that my students have told have been things just like how many people were attending, in attendance at events, that’s been a huge thing that we’ve been looking at just over this past year and everything’s COVID right now, so I apologize for that, but just about every story that my students did in the spring wrapped around COVID in some sort of manner. I was challenging them by the end, I was like, “If you can get to the end of this story without saying, ‘COVID,’ I’ll give you 10 points.” I didn’t do that, but I felt like it. And I think that one of the things that we can do as academics is not only look at the success rate of things, but also look toward the things that we can improve upon.

And as journalists covering academics, we’ve got to listen for those things. And you’ve got to challenge your readers to challenge the decision makers. And that’s what we do with data as journalists, we put it out there, we let the public consume it, we explain it the best that we can using factual information, not trying to manipulate that data in some way to support what we’re doing, but actually starting with the data rather than trying to find data that support what we do.

And we’re taught that as academics as well, that we start with the data rather than saying something and then going to find people who support us, we want to challenge ourselves. And that’s what we’re supposed to do as journalists is challenge our readers so that they can challenge the decision makers.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m really glad about what’d you brought up because it really makes me think about journalists and researchers. And as a journalist and a researcher, you can really unintentionally bias where you’re going with your story or your research. So much so that if you’re trying to get to point A, you can actually get to that outcome unintentionally and put out misinformation, I don’t say disinformation, disinformation is typically information that is put out there on purpose to confuse people, but it’s very easy for your average person hard-working to put out misinformation because sometimes you don’t know.

It really makes me think of just how difficult social media has made information literacy today, because there’s so much information. And the example is on my phone. I was scrolling once and then I saw one of my articles there and I was like, “Hey, that’s me, I wrote that.”

But then imagine if you have somebody who’s out there who’s really trying to put out disinformation and they do the certain things to get their articles promoted or this and that and then their articles could start being on people’s newsfeeds and then its catchy title and feel like, “Oh, let me click on that.” And more clicks get more people. And I’m not going to say nefarious writers, but people who want to put out disinformation, you can see how that could creep into people’s newsfeeds. Now, how can people fight that? And that sounds funny saying, fight that, but how can they really help their own information literacy to sift through so much data today?

Dr. Amber Narro: It’s interesting that, yes, because I hear this a lot on different podcasts, I’ve actually heard it on yours as well. I’m not sure which episode it was. We need to look at different sources. We need to not trust the same source that we look at over, and over, and over again, and actually go in and look at the local news, look at several different national news sources and then make up our minds based on several different sources, rather than reading the same thing over and over again. Because that, in and of itself creates a bias, doesn’t it? So if we’re just looking at the same source over and over again, however balanced it is, there’s a bias.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought that up because it makes me think of the media landscape over the last four years. And the last four years will be really interesting to write as far as history goes and how the media reported and how certain media was biased.

But where a certain story occurred and then an outlet took it up they didn’t actually verify that story, but they ran with it. And then the other outlets are now behind the ball. So they run with it and then they verify it by verifying with the original person. And then it’s very easy for two, three, four media outlets to then have the same story and then the original author then has discredited. Then you have all these stories come out and then media outlets will then be like, “Oh, well we made a mistake,” but people never see the correction. And, first of all, why is the initial reporting so powerful and why does everybody miss the corrections?

Dr. Amber Narro: Well, mainly because if you are a media outlet, you’re going to use your space wisely for, trying not to be too critical, but you’re probably not going to run with it at the top of the hour, what bleeds leads, still. And I’ve actually talked about this on my show on KSLU here at Southeastern recently about the public and our desire to see things that are not so positive. And I include myself in that. And not seek out the things that are negative, but we’re very critical of the news to show that negative stuff first.

Well, I got news for everybody, if we didn’t like it so much, it wouldn’t lead. So we are, as the media, were responding to the want of our public and unfortunately, that’s what we get. And what they want to see is that big punchy headline and when you correct yourself we, as the media, aren’t going to lead with that and then they’re not going to search for it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think, and this is the one example how a little while ago, Fox News, they ran with a story that said that the Biden administration is going to force everybody, and I can’t remember what the exact term, to reduce their meat intake by 90%. And then very quickly some Fox shows were like, “I’m going to eat burgers whenever I want and Biden can’t make me only eat one burger a day.”

And then by the end of that weekend, very quietly, they’re like, “You know what? We have to retract this because this is actually just a University of Michigan study about the environmental impacts of reducing your meat consumption.” So when I saw that and I actually read the 2020 University of Michigan report, it’s a great report, very interesting. But in the reporting, and then in the corrections, nobody ever talked about the actual report. It was just about the big, bad political, whatever is going to force you to do this.

When I think a better conversation to have is like, “Why is it as Americans we eat about 220 pounds of meat every year on average? What does that mean to health? What does that mean to long-term health? What does that mean for how many animals?” There’s so much rich reporting that could go into that that was completely lost.

Dr. Amber Narro: Oh, it’s data rich, for sure. Just starting with the 220 pounds thing. So I’m 5’4″, I’m not 220 pounds and I think of that is the average person is eating more than my weight in meat. It gets real, that’s when you can personalize it and make that real. And as soon as you can do that, people start listening. You can say it’s environmentally unfriendly, but when you start talking about the number of animals, then all of a sudden we can picture these animals standing in a pasture and feel sorry for them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: But then so much emotion gets wrapped up in reporting. It’s unfortunate, I don’t mean to say that emotion’s unfortunate, but that certain outlets choose to go forward with the emotional side versus the actual story side.

Dr. Amber Narro: Absolutely. You mentioned the story about Japan and the comparison-kind of data and it made me think of the recent local academic story in our area. We had our parish, because I’m in Louisiana, a parish tax that was coming that was proposed by the school board that said it’s a 10th of a penny. And they did this big campaign on it several years ago and the tax failed.

I spoke to the Superintendent Melissa Stilley here in Tangipahoa Parish and I remember her saying, “We’ve just got to make people understand what this money is going to do and get them to trust us with it so that we are not irresponsible with their tax dollars.” So over the last couple of years, they’ve really taken some time and told the parish, told the citizens, what they were going to do with this money, raises for teachers, also making sure that some of the schools were taken care of, the student investment, things like that.

So they really started putting this data, which all people were hearing was extra taxes, into a real sort of something that people can visualize and it’s tangible. We want to pay our teachers, yes, of course we do. Right? So as soon as people started seeing that data turn into real things, the tax passed just a few weeks ago and it was a lot to do with comparing that data and saying, “What does this 10th of a penny mean to the normal household? How much is it in real dollars? And is it worth investing these real dollars into our teachers?” Yeah, of course. So it’s just making that data be real.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. And making data real is so important because just like we’ve talked about some people just can’t relate to data and then some people it’s not part of their lives. So having them realize how it can impact them positively is so important.

So the next question is data is a starting point not the supporting point, find the data first and then the sources, not the other way around. How do you start?

Dr. Amber Narro: So mainly you start with a topic. And what I tell my students is what they’ll try to do in the very beginning, especially beginning journalists, will try to find all the information on that topic that they can and start writing the stories and then call for quotes.

So what they’ll do is write the story in its entirety and then what you see is at the very bottom, you’ll say, “This person had this to say about this topic,” introducing their quote, rather than doing a transition. But what they basically do is leave the sources for the bottom and then maybe at the bottom, they’ll also say, “And additionally, 50% of people feel this way.”

So I try to explain to them that if they take the data in the very beginning, and then they turn that data into questions for their sources that even strengthens the data further, because now you allow your sources to explain the data.

You’ve done the research on the data and your sources and your experts have explained it. And that just gives your story so much variety and oftentimes students will see that the original thought that they had around this data is actually not correct or not complete, and their sources complete that data and allow them to bring that credibility to the story.

So when I say start with data, what I mean is the data can also let you know if this is a story worth covering. Because if you do look at it and you see that there’s a lot of information surrounding the topic of the day, make sure that you go adopt kittens. Kittens are everywhere and one of the things that I just learned as far as data was concerned is the average age of a cat is so low because most cats die very early on because there’s so many available. And I’ve got this friend, she calls herself cat vet. Her name is actually Kat. So it’s an interesting little play on her name as well as what she does for a living.

She’s a veterinarian and she’s a cat rescuer. And she does a lot of data posting on her Facebook page that really brings it home. But what if my heartstrings are just pulled by this and I just care so much about cats and I love my cat. She’s wonderful, she is a pain in the rear end, but she’s fantastic too. I look at the local shelter and the local shelter has no cats, or maybe they just have one or two. Is it really a local story at that time? Is it real at that point to do a story on this? Now, I know I’m pulling at straws there because there’s always cats available.

But I tell my students, “If you don’t know that, or if you tell people to go to the Tangi animal shelter here in our area, without calling them first and finding out that they’ve had to close their cat kennel for a little while, just because they’re cleaning it or whatever, it’s timing, it’s data, it’s understanding that the data is the starting point, but it’s not the story and that you’ve got to go and find information to support that story. And like I said, I know the cat story is a reach, but it still could happen where you’re sending people to a place that can’t help them because you haven’t gone past the data and ask the questions of your local experts.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really love how you said data is the starting point because here I’m going to give you a scenario. So from the 2017-2018 census data, so it’s probably been updated, I just haven’t researched it since 2020-21. The median household income here in the US is about $60,000. And then for white households, it’s around $69,800, so almost $70,000. And then for Black households, it’s $40,000; Asian, it’s $83,000; and Hispanic it’s $51,000 and those are wildly different.

So if data is the starting point, how do you try to get that information out there? Because I’ve read so many articles about this, explaining it and articles that really do a great job, but then so many people don’t seem to understand the difference of household income. Do you find that that’s because they read an article and they’re in one of those categories and that’s all they focused on?

Dr. Amber Narro: Possibly but I also think it’s because you don’t go past the numbers and actually try to localize it because we talked about it in the very beginning and said that data is only as real as it is personal. We said that in the very beginning. So if you’re not trying to make it specific to an area and the best way to make it personal is to localize it, is to figure out how that national data compares to what’s going on with us locally.

When you were talking I also thought about the example of you’ve got the housing situation going on right now. And real estate in my area where I live right now, if I put my house up for sale today, it’s gone tomorrow. So it’s pending before it hits the online real estate area. If you’re doing a story, it’s also time sensitive to whether it means something today versus tomorrow.

And you might do a story today on how important it is for young people to have home ownership. But if there are no homes to buy in an affordable range for young people right now, how in the world are you going to write this story and let the data support it?

So if you start with the data and you just see that the housing, the availability isn’t there right now, that listings are hardly available, maybe that’s the story that you need to focus on right now, rather than how important it is for young people to buy homes. When in your area, the real story is the affordability and the availability of property.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. And that’s completely true. Now, my last question for you, since you do teach at a school that has a journalism focus. Correct?

Dr. Amber Narro: We have a journalism concentration, both television and multimedia and those two were together as well as sports.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So how do you encourage students to potentially go into journalism when working in journalism is really hard today? So many newspapers, so many places have cut their staff. It’s this weird thing where there’s a lot of really good journalism happening by “non-professionals” who are professionals. But then the typical step to go into journalism has really, really confusing today versus, say, a generation ago.

Dr. Amber Narro: The best thing to tell them is that they’ve got to differentiate. They’ve got to figure out how they are better than the rest of what’s out there. And mostly to be honest with you, it’s their writing skill. So I think a lot of people who listen to people like us and we’re talking, don’t realize that there was a lot of stuff that went into just planning this podcast.

That we worked back and forth and over questions that we were going to talk about and had a conversation plan before we got here, that it’s not just about turning on the mic and going. When I do my show on the radio, I always talk to my guests before they come about, the topics that we’re going to discuss and I get them to arrive about 15 or 20 minutes early so that we can do kind of like a little pre-interview about it. So I know exactly what I’m going to talk about.

My questions are written down, pay attention to what I’m going to ask, I have kind of an idea of what’s going on. And I think what a lot of people think, is that you just show up and you turn it on and you go, and they don’t understand the process of writing and researching and figuring things out. And I’m sorry, you’re not going to make it on that pretty face for long. You got to have a brain in your head and you got to figure out how to write a story concisely, because that’s probably where you’re going to start, is writing. And if you’re good enough and you have a pretty face, then you might get on camera.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that because this is going to sound funny, there’s nothing wrong with pretty faces and cable news has lots of pretty faces and they’re good people and they’re hardworking people but to be able to write a story that does go into depth and does explain is a differentiator.

Because unfortunately, when we do watch a lot of news, it goes into such surface-level information that you actually don’t learn anything and you’re just repeating what this person said, or that person says where they’re just trying to honestly manipulate you. And I feel bad saying manipulate, but they are. They’re just trying to get you to believe a certain thing.

To be able to write and writing is one of the things I encourage everybody to do as a business person, as a communicator, as a professional communications person, as anything, you have to work on your writing. And that is one of the greatest differentiators that you can actually develop, but once you figure it out, you’re like, “okay, I know how to do this now. And I can actually write my thoughts coherently so other people can clearly understand.” It’s not about the length, it’s about the clarity of thought.

Dr. Amber Narro: Absolutely. And I want to also say that the data brings another level to your story. And journalists have been using data forever, this isn’t new, but what I think that we’ve gotten away from as journalists is that localization of the data.

And I think what a lot of us have tried to do, and I think the ease of getting so much information at our fingertips has taught us to look for the data to support what we believe, rather than to look for data and then go into it. And that’s what I just want to remind journalists to do that if you’ve got a pile of data, that’s fantastic, that’s wonderful. Use the data that’s available to you from credible sources to write your stories in a localized manner so that it makes sense to people rather than just grabbing it and using it to support some idea or topic that you already had in mind.

If you start there and then you explore it and you give it a chance to talk to you, then you’ve got a good story rather than just seeing it and plugging it in.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Absolutely love that. Really, really great conversation today. Thank you, Amber, for again, really data rich, story rich, really great talking points about storytelling with data. Any final words?

Dr. Amber Narro: Just like I said, the final thing is write and don’t be afraid of numbers. Let the numbers talk to you. It’s okay, they’re not as difficult, especially if you start exploring experts.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So thank you. It is an absolutely wonderful conversation. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Amber Narro about storytelling with data. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thanks for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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