From Spreadsheets to Headlines: A Day in the Life of Data Journalist Ryan Struyk

What is a data journalist? If you ask Ryan Struyk, data reporter and mobile producer at CNN Politics, it’s someone who can turn a data set into breaking news. Data reporters explain important issues, but instead of using human sources to break the news, they work with data sets.

This is Statistics had the opportunity to talk with Ryan about being a data journalist and what that means. Ryan explains how data has become a key skill for journalists and offers a glimpse into what it’s like to be a data reporter at CNN.

How did you come to pursue a career in statistics?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with finding little nuggets that can make a big point — especially if they involved numbers. I especially loved doing this with sports growing up, but remember keeping statistics on everything from the books in my bedroom to the free throws in my driveway. I started college with plans to be a high school math teacher but opted to take my bachelor’s degree in mathematics, with an emphasis in statistics, into the crazy world of journalism.

Tell us about how you use statistics at CNN.

One big way we use statistics is in our public opinion polling. This requires a unique combination of technical and abstract skills. There’s a big difference between knowing which questions we should ask and the wording we should use to ask them — but we do both. This means polling, in many ways, is both an art and a science. Another key component of my job is making statistics accessible, both to an internal and external audience. Let’s face it: most journalists don’t pick their career path because they like math. So the ability to talk about statistics in everyday language — words that you might hear in a television script — becomes key to your success.

In the era of big data and widely available statistics, isn’t every journalist a “data reporter” in some capacity?

One hundred percent. If you’re just reading a typical news story — something we wouldn’t necessarily call “data journalism” — odds are that it’s got a statistic or two in it. Reporters use statistics as proof to back up major points in stories or fact-check arguments from politicians all the time.

It’s our job to cut through the spin and present the data in as straightforward and accessible a way as possible. That’s often easier said than done, but a solid foundation in statistics is usually the first step to getting it right.

Being able to understand and think critically about the way statistics are used can help us navigate the media, optimize the way we do our jobs and understand the stores we visit and the websites we browse. Especially in today’s world of big data, every organization has a huge opportunity to harness the power of statistics.

What do you say to people who say statistics is “boring”?

If you think statistics is boring, you probably don’t have a full understanding of what statistics is.

Statistics can save lives, win championships and solve societal problems. Statistics can win elections, make profits and cure diseases. For every sweeping goal that aims to change the world, statistics are almost always involved in the efforts to accomplish it. Statisticians have the tools to explain and shape the world on a colossal scale. That doesn’t sound too boring to me.

How can statistics help combat the notion of “fake news”?

People with agendas on all sides of all issues can manipulate data to back up just about any point they want to make. But ultimately, the facts matter. In my time as a reporter, I’ve used statistics to correct the record and fact check everything from the health care debate in the U.S. Senate to the Idaho state legislature’s efforts to confront a public defender shortage. A robust knowledge of what does (and doesn’t) look fishy in the methodology behind real-life statistics is key to defending the facts in this business.

What advice would you give to aspiring data journalists when it comes to working with data?

Keep one foot in both worlds. Understand the nuts and bolts of statistics as well as anyone. Make sure you can hold your own with a big data set and you learn how to make your spreadsheet sing. But then learn what it means to write an engaging television script. Learn the science of snappy headline writing. Know what makes an interview question really sparkle. A full understanding of both the fast-paced, engaging media world and the academic, technical statistics world will serve you well.

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