What does a career based on telling stories with data look like? An interactive graphics journalist with The Straits Times, Rebecca Pazos introduces us to data journalism. It takes a nose for storytelling, a mix of skills, and above all, teamwork, especially when you also have a full-time job as a mom to a toddler.
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be an interactive graphics journalist?
Back in 2011, I was studying Journalism, and I came across a video by Hans Rosling of Gapminder. It opened my eyes to what’s possible and I became very interested in telling stories with data. Before that, I was angling myself towards broadcast media.
In hindsight, it was an opportunity for me to look beyond the normal ways that we gather sources for journalism. Typically, you talk to people, and the news articles are more anecdotal in nature. Using data gives us at least more context than a few people’s point of view.
Around 2012 when the Australian census came out, I worked on a few projects with the Sydney Morning Herald on a voluntary basis. That was mind-blowing, and I really enjoyed looking at the data, figuring out how to display it, and making it useful for people to understand. I was working with my then-boyfriend/now-husband who is a designer. During that time, I also became involved with the Hacks/Hackers group in Australia, which boosted my passion for this sort of journalism.
We moved to Singapore, and I got a job in content marketing, which deviated from my actual dream job. Later through my contacts with Hacks/Hackers and organising meetups in Singapore, I managed to know a lot of people in the media industry. That’s how I got my current role with the Straits Times. My husband started out at a separate company, but is also now with the Straits Times’ digital graphics team.
The data journalism scene is still fairly new and developing in Asia. What’s your work day like?
It’s a little different now from what it was before. I recently went back to work in December from maternity leave, and I have a 16-month-old son. My role has shifted from hands-on work to more of an editorial role.
I work part-time from 8am to 12pm, then my husband comes in at about 1.30pm. He’ll do the rest of the shift till the evening. In summary, I find the story in the data.
For a typical project, if the idea comes from the digital graphics team, I already have a sense of how to proceed, but if it comes from the newsroom, I’ll have to figure out what their angle is or the story they’re trying to say. Then we look at what data is available. Most of the time is spent copying, pasting, scraping, cleaning, and processing the data.
I don’t do crazy processing in R or anything like that. I use Google Sheets. I’ll run a pivot table and a few simple charts, and that shows me the shape of the data. That’s usually how I come up with the story angle, and then from there, if I found something that’s worth doing, I need to throw it back to my editor.
Nine out of ten times with data, it just gives you something that you’re not expecting. Then, there’s also following up with the usual journalistic way of emailing, calling, and interviewing people that have worked on the data or know more about what the data is saying.
Once we have some concept, the designers will come in to do the mockups and brainstorm on how to make the visuals look good and create a good user experience. At the coding stage, we have the developers come in and they may make the visuals interactive or create virtual reality or augmented reality effects.
To give an example, the Pakatan Harapan party, which won the Malaysian General Election, had its first anniversary in May 2019. We were asked to look at the overall promises of the party and do a follow-up report. But for me, each of those promises made was the data point. Visually, it was quite nice to see how many were still in progress, how many have been fulfilled, and how many were still yet to be addressed.
Journalists for the story had a general angle they wanted to push, which was that although the Pakatan Harapan party made some progress, there was still a lot of upset from the general population, and there was a quote from the Prime Minister that he didn’t really expect to win so they made all these promises that they couldn’t keep!
With this general angle, we kept trying to figure out what’s the best way to tell the story. Typically for the print version of the news, you might focus on ten key promises and provide a breakdown of those promises. But I realized that doing this wouldn’t tell the full story. It would suggest that the Pakatan Harapan party was doing really well and that they almost achieved all their promises.
Then we went through all the promises, verified the state of things, and presented the outcome in a visual way. It gave a sense of breadth, and you could tell why people would be feeling a bit upset about the progress of the party.
I don’t do the coding or design side of things. There are awesome people out there who do all three (including journalism) and they’re really impressive. It’s tough for me to wrap my head around coding, but it’s important I know the basics to communicate with the developers and understand the difficulties that they face.
With my journalism background, my passion for data, and six years of experience working with visuals, I’m trying to balance and connect the two aspects: the journalistic angle and how to visually display the story.
What’s a common misconception about data journalism that you would like to correct?
Most people don’t even know that we are doing data journalism at the Straits Times, but I totally understand. Working on interactive graphics takes a lot of time and effort. This means that our work can get lost in the daily breaking news, which get released in a more common format.
I might be shooting myself in the foot with this next comment, but I think it’s important to address it. There is this general idea that data presents the whole truth, but the data itself can present some biases. That’s something that I try to be very aware of. I think that data has the power to give us a better context for the story or a different view of the story, but it’s not going to give us the whole objective truth. So we always have to bridge the data with findings from more traditional journalistic methods.
What’s the most challenging part of your work, and what’s your best hack for that?
We have to be aware that some of our readers may not have much graphic literacy, and we do have to be careful not to present graphics in a very complex way. I have to balance that against oversimplifying things. I don’t want to find that we’re missing different facets of the story.
Everybody has the ability to read graphics and understand complexity. It’s how we tell the story. What I have tried to do with a lot of our stuff is use scrollytelling, where we break things down and use text overlaid on visuals to give a nice narrative way of understanding complex ideas.
I also aspire towards Hans Rosling’s type of visualizations. He combines personality, fun, and emotion with the data storytelling. I try to bring in this human aspect in my work.
What would you say are the most understated skill-sets in data journalism?
On a basic level, you need to have a nose for news and storytelling. You need to know how to construct the story in different formats. If you’re coming in at the entry-level, I would suggest finding people to work with, like a developer or a designer. Working in a team can be very fruitful and you will also learn so much from them than you would on your own. Find people to share your passion with and work on projects. Be hands-on, find a dataset you’re interested in, and give it a go.
Another thing is to stay on top of the latest goings-on. Be on Twitter and follow people who are in the know about the industry. About two or three years ago in the interactive graphic industry, we were talking about vertical videos. That has all changed again, and it’s now more about scrollytelling. I find it valuable to be very aware of what other publications are doing and analyse how they execute their work.
Tell us about a time when you tried a new or unusual routine to get things done.
This may seem weird for somebody who works online, but when I communicate, I have to get a piece of paper and just draw it out. Having my ideas out on pen and paper makes it more tangible to me.
How do you juggle between your work and your responsibilities as a mother?
I’m very lucky, and I’m grateful that I have a workplace that’s really flexible. Even so, my workplace can’t always understand the things that I might face. To be honest, there was one time where I was publishing a graphic and my son was vomiting. While he’s vomiting, I’m having to check my phone. These things happen.
I can’t bespoke edit for projects like I did before. I need to pass on my skills to others in the team so that they can follow up when I’m not around. It’s also about not getting stressed out that sometimes things don’t get done. I think to myself, thankfully, I’m not a nurse or doctor, no one is going to die if things don’t get published today though there are other consequences.
At the end of the day, my son is my priority so I have to think in that regard. Taking a step back, delegating and training others have become an important part of my job.
What’s your favourite passion project?
I’m very lucky that I’m in a job where I love what I do. A project that we did about two years ago was groundbreaking for data visualization to me. We looked at sea-level rise and used virtual reality to take people to the Merlion by Marina Bay and actually raise the water level. You get a real sense of context and scale that you wouldn’t get through a graphic chart. Say, you can indicate an increase of seven meters in a chart, but what does that actually mean? To put that into a visual space was groundbreaking for me.
Covering elections is my bread and butter and I love it. With the Malaysia elections last year, we spent three months just gathering data and trying to figure out how to present the live results. These days, I think most people come to the newspaper not for many things anymore, but they do for elections and live results. That’s where we get to do some really fun things with data.