Friday Rant: Data-Driven to Distraction edition

April 4

Okay, Data Journalism is the new new thing. Hooray. There most certainly was a vacuum that needed filling, and now it seems like it will be filled. Count on us to get it wrong.

There are many ways to get data journalism wrong, besides getting the data wrong which will also happen. Data is difficult, and often VERY ambiguous, and explaining it is clear, accurate language is harder than most realize. But those are not the only problems, and maybe are the least of them.

The real issue is Relative Importance. Some data are REALLY important, and some are not. Let’s describe it as like the difference between the Sun and a Grapefruit. Data journalism as it’s normally talked about tends to treat them as kinda the same. Data! What am I working up to here? I’m working up to THIS.

This data about income and wealth divergence is BY FAR the most important data to our economy and society. I’ll go so far today as to say it may be the ONLY variable of genuine importance now. The horse is out of the barn and is galloping madly away. That is the data point that matters. That is the data point that that all other policy decisions hinge on. So one occasional data-story about this in a miasma of thousands of other stories doesn’t do it. Yes, you COULD do a data-based analysis of the degree of shine on the sweat on the flank of the horse, but that gets you what, really? An eye-catching infographic of the length of the straws left in the barn or on the trail of the horse may be accurate and beside the point simultaneously. If you think wealth disparity is not a problem, that’s one thing. If you think it’s a huge problem, it is the problem that gives meaning and purpose to all the other data. But you do need to decide. If you don’t ask the right question, you can end up with a beautiful set of accurate data to distract you from the fact that you should be out chasing the horse.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog.
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Tom Toles | April 3