by Kira Schacht


In the past decades, technological progress has immensely boosted the development of data driven journalism. But the idea of telling stories with data is far older than any computer. For the longest time, pen, paper and heaps of patience were the most important tools for any data journalist. Let’s take a look at the field’s history – starting more than 150 years ago.


Sources can be found below this text.


Back in the 1850s, Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursing and first woman in the Royal Statistical Society of Great Britain, had recognized the impact of a good visualization and used it to achieve her goals. During the Crimean War, she meticulously documented the deaths of British soldiers. She illustrated her findings in a series of innovative graphs and diagrams – some of them she invented herself, including the polar area chart now sometimes referred to as the Nightingale rose diagram.

Her statistical work clearly showed the deadliness of infections and diseases the soldiers contracted in the military hospitals, something that was routinely underestimated back then. Nightingale used her work to convince the British parliament of installing better hygiene regulations that would save many lives.


There are quite a few reports like this one about early applications of data driven methods. But it only became possible to collect and analyze data on a larger scale once the first computers hit the market. The team of American broadcasting network CBS were among the first to use these methods to predict election results. In 1952, they fed results and polls of former presidential elections to a Remington UNIVAC, one of the very first computers.

When the UNIVAC pronounced that the odds were 100:1 in favor of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CBS team assumed it to be a bug. But the machine was right: Eisenhower won, and the computer had estimated the result of the election accurately up to one percentage point – a breakthrough for the computer industry as well as its application to journalism.


In the first few years, even decades of computer technology, getting access to one of these machines was anything but easy. The majority of work still got done by hand, even if it was technologically possible for a computer to do the task. Conducting an election poll in 1962 still meant going from door to door, collecting questionnaires and manually sorting them by party, candidate, age, gender – many hours of labour for something that, today, would take no more than a few clicks.


A few years later, journalist Philip Meyer would set a milestone in the field of “Computer Assisted Reporting”, or CAR for short. It was 1967, the year of the civil rights protests in Detroit. These demonstrations were one of the deadliest in American history, with 43 people dead and over 7.000 arrested.

Together with the Detroit Free Press, Meyer set up a poll aimed at fact-checking the common prejudices people had against protesters. His team analyzed their results on a mainframe computer and was able to show that the stereotypes were barely rooted in reality: The civil rights protesters were neither badly integrated immigrants from the south nor did they come mainly from the lowest social classes.

For their work, the team of the Detroit Free Press was awarded the Pulitzer prize in the following year. Philip Meyer himself was referred to as a “computer reporter” for the first time then.


Meyer did not like this title at all; in the following decades, he fought it vigorously. It was not the computers that defined his work, he insisted, but the methods he used, methods borrowed from the social sciences. He coined the term “Precision Journalism” as an alternative, and wrote a book of the same name in 1973, subtitled “A Reporter’s Guide to Social Science Methods”. The book gained quite a lot of recognition and was published in four editions, the most recent one in 2002.


During the 70s and 80s, work time on computing machines became cheaper and processing data became easier. The number of projects that would be labeled as data driven journalism today rose, albeit slowly.

One enabling factor was the Freedom of Information Act that came into force in the US in 1967. As one of the first countries in the world, US authorities were now obligated to provide information about their work to their citizens – including journalists. For comparison, consider that Germany only passed a similar law in 2006, almost 40 years later.


With the Missouri Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (MICAR), later renamed the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR), an important institution for data driven journalism in the US was founded 1989. In the 90s, the institute began holding CAR training seminars for journalists, so-called boot camps that quickly gained popularity and are still offered today. NICAR itself gained in size and influence just as fast, not least because of its collaboration with the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which also had its seat at the University of Missouri. Among the members of IRE and NICAR were, and still are, some of the biggest names in CAR and data driven journalism: Bill Dedman, who published the series “The Color of Money” during the late 80s, professor of journalism and trainer for investigative reporting Brant Houston, current IRE president and leader of the New York Times data team Sara Cohen and many more.


As more data became accessible via the internet during the 2000s, data driven journalism evolved towards its current state. American journalist and software developer Adrian Holovaty authored an influential essay in 2006, in which he invites journalists and media networks to regard their own stories as sources of data and treat them as such. He encourages them to convert journalistic content into usable data and make it accessible in databases. A relatively new thought back then, which linked journalism to the ideal of transparency inherent to the open data movement. Today, this movement is closely connected to the data journalism community.


Finally, let’s take a look at data driven journalism in Germany, which still seems to lag behind the work done in the US. There are a few probable causes that factor into this effect.

With the NICAR boot camps – and other seminars following – the training opportunities in data journalism methods have traditionally been broader and more consistent in the US. Moreover, the connection among data journalists and between data journalists and investigative reporters, which has grown in the US since the late 80s, is not nearly as strong in Germany.

Another factor is probably the late introduction of the German Freedom of Information law – after all, it’s hard to work with data if data isn’t accessible.


Since WikiLeaks’ release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs in 2010 though, data journalism is integrating itself into German journalism as well.

In the past years, multiple newsrooms have established data teams consisting of journalists, computer scientists and designers. While, to a large part, data journalism in Germany operates on the basis of flagship projects, it is slowly becoming a part of the everyday routine of some newsrooms.

Who knows; in a few years, data analysis might become a natural research tool for any journalist.





Sources / More Information

These are the sources used in this overview, in case some of you want to dig deeper into the history of data driven journalism. It’s definitely worth it. The articles mentioned in the text are listed separately at the end of this list.


AHLGREN, Andrew / MOSIER, Nancy R.: Credibility of Precision Journalism. In: Journalism Quarterly Nr.58/1981, S.375-381.

BOUNEGRU, Liliana / CHAMBERS, Lucy / GRAY, Jonathan (Hrsg.): The Data Journalism Handbook. How Journalists Can Use Data to Improve the News. O’Reilly Media Inc. California 2012.

BOWERS, Thomas A.: ‚Precision Journalism‘ in North Carolina in the 1800s. In: Journalism Quarterly Nr.53/1976, S.738-740.

HOLOVATY, Adrian: A fundamental way newspaper sites need to change. Adrian Holovaty. URL:

HOUSTON, Brant: Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 3. Auflage. Boston 2004.

KAYSER-BRIL, Nicolas: #ddj: Reasons to cheer from Amsterdam’s Data-Driven Journalism conference. URL:

KEEBLE, Richard Lance, MAIR, John (Hrsg.): Data journalism: Mapping the future. Abramis academic publishing. UK 2013.

MEEK, Colin: Analysis: Computer-assisted reporting leaves UK journalists in the slow lane. URL:

MEYER, Philip: Precision Journalism. A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 4. Auflage. Maryland 2002.

NOELLE-NEUMANN, Elisabeth: Der demoskopische Korrespondent. Ein neuer Nachrichtenstoff, eine neue Art Journalismus. In: HÖMBERG, Walter / LANGENBUCHER, Wolfgang R. / SCHREIBER, Erhard (Hrsg.): Kommunikation im Wandel der Gesellschaft. Droste Verlag. Düsseldorf 1980, S.165-175.

PAUL, Nora (Hrsg.): When Nerds and Words Collide. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Florida 1999.

PAVLIK, John: Innovationen bei der Recherche I: „Computer Assisted Reporting – Ein Überlick. Perpektiven der Forschung. In: FENGLER, Susanne / KRETZSCHMAR, Sonja (Hrsg.): Innovationen für den Journalismus. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. Wiesbaden 2009, S.93-99.

PEARSON, Mike / SHORT, Ian: Nightingale’s ‚Coxcombs‘. Understanding Uncertainty. URL:

Right2INFO: Access to Information Laws: Overview and Statutory Goals. URL:

SCHRÖDER, Ebba: ZEIT ONLINE startet Investigativ-Team – Politikchef Markus Horeld wechselt in die Chefredaktion. DIE ZEIT Verlagsgruppe. URL:

SCHWENTKER, Björn: Tausche Daten gegen Demokratie. Datenjournalist. URL:

SMALL, Hugh: Florence Nightingale’s statistical diagrams. Presentation to Research Conference organised by the Florence Nightingale Museum. URL:

SPILLER, Ralf / WEIHNACHT, Stefan: Datenjournalismus in Deutschland. Eine explorative Untersuchung zu Rollenbildern von Datenjournalisten. In: Publizistik Nr.4/2014, S.411-433.

US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: FOIA Update: The Freedom of Information Act. URL:

WEISCHENBERG, Siegfried / MALIK, Maja / SCHOLL, Armin: Die Souffleure der Mediengesellschaft. Report über die Journalisten in Deutschland. UVK. Konstanz 2006.

Articles Referenced

BURNHAM, David: A Wide Disparity is Found in Crime Throughout City. In: New York Times 14.2.1972, S.1-2.

DEDMAN, Bill: The Color of Money. In: The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution. 1.-4.5.1988.

ROGERS, Simon: Wikileaks Iraq war logs: every death mapped. The Guardian Datablog. URL:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Die Irak-Protokolle 2004-2009. URL:

YOUNGE, Gary: The Detroit riots of 1967 hold some lessons for the UK. The Guardian. URL: (Stand: 5.9.2011, 15:00; abgerufen am: 20.3.2015, 14:48)