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Data journalism

Data journalism and James Cameron: a world of questions

Anybody who’s seen any of my talks knows I always quote James Cameron at some point – and you can see a quote from him on my home page. This piece is about that quote.

James Cameron is the journalist who reported from Korea and Vietnam and more war zones than you could name. The child of a Guardian and Observer house, I grew up with him, either quoted to me or watching re-runs of his amazing documentaries on TV. His book, Point of Departure made me want to become a journalist – I really recommend it for anyone interested in reporting now.

So, how does he fit in with data journalism? He may have hated writing this blogpost on a computer, or the day to day data we face, but I like to think he would have loved the reach the internet would give him. I imagine he would have baulked at the Wikileaks spreadsheets, but would have seen the good of the stories they generated.

I have often quoted him in something I found online:

The new world will be a place of answers and no questions, because the only questions left will be answered by computers, because only computers will know what to ask

While doing some research for a documentary we’re producing on data journalism, I came across the video clip above, which is where the quote is from.

‘Cameron Country’ was shown on BBC TV in July 1969. In it he visits Nasa in Texas. I love this film – and the language he uses as he worries about the role of Nasa’s computers and the diminishing importance of the people there – the software, as he calls them.

And I found the quote above – but the full thing (it takes place from 8:10 onwards) is rather lovely – and much better than the short one I have used so often.

Once upon a time the world was a realm of unanswered questions and there was room in it for poetry. Man stood beneath the sky and he asked “why?”. And his question was beautiful.

The new world will be a place of answers and no questions, because the only questions left will be answered by computers, because only computers will know what to ask.

Perhaps that is the way it has to be.

I think the best data journalism does take from that approach – for all its dystopian futuristic nightmare images Cameron worried about. The fact is that now we can ask questions of data in ways we never could before.

But it works at its best when it’s combined with the story tellers, the modern day Camerons such as Declan Walsh, Maggie O’KaneGhaith Abdul-Ahad or Jack Shenkar. What if we could always tell the data stories behind their human ones? Surely it would only make them stronger.

Data journalism is about one thing, and it’s really quite simple: telling stories.

About Simon Rogers

Data journalist, writer, speaker. Author of 'Facts are Sacred', from Faber & Faber and a new range of infographics for children books from Candlewick. Edited and launched the Guardian Datablog. Now works for Google in California as Data Editor


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