Journalism by the Numbers


Written by Anna Codrea-Rado
21 Monday 21st February 2011

The Guardian’s Paul Bradshaw defines data journalism as the “convergence of a number of fields which are significant in their own right from investigative research and statistics to design and programming. The idea of combining those skills to tell important stories is powerful - but also intimidating.”

The first Future Human event of 2011 tackled this very issue, with an insightful exploration of the fundamental shift in 21st century information and power exchange. I caught up with Ben Leapman, Deputy News Editor at The Sunday Telegraph, after the talk to get his views on this intimidatingly powerful skill that is data journalism.

Ben Leapman (second from right) at the Data Journalism talk

Leapman was one of three journalists, along with Heather Brooke and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, to make Freedom of Information (FoI) requests that led to the exposure of the MPs expenses scandal in 2009. At first these requests were denied, and then the House of Commons attempted to block them, but the dispute was rendered irrelevant when The Telegraph received the secret data that allowed them to fully expose the scandal.

A map of every incident from the Wikileaks Iraq database where someone died

“Statistics are really important to journalism. The release of facts and figures that can be analysed by journalists, or directly by readers, gives people an idea of what’s going on and helps to hold public services to account.” Leapman doesn’t consider himself a data journalist per se, but rather “an old-fashioned journalist, trained in a traditional way”. He is, however, “very interested in statistics” and appreciates the” importance of new techniques”.

Leapman credits the Freedom of Information Act 2000 as a seminal moment for journalism. “It was one of the most transformative pieces of legislation that Labour put through. It absolutely enabled the MPs expenses scandal to come out.”  

Leapman is quick to point out that the MPs expenses scandal was far from “the most important thing the FoI Act enabled to come out.” During his time as Home Affairs correspondent at The Telegraph, he reported on stories he considered to be “far more significant”, such as his report on crimes committed by offenders on probation”. 

Despite the 2008 High Court ruling in favour of releasing the information, in the end the information about the MPs expenses was released via leaked documents. During the Future Human talk, it was hinted at that Leapman would have preferred to have seen the documents released by the government as a result of the FoI Act. He tells me, however, that because the documents were leaked “the redacted sections became available as well”, this meant that the public had access to the full story – duck houses and all – and so it was a “win-win” situation.

Leapman sees there being increasingly more demand for information as people want to know what’s going on around them. “People want to turn to journalists that they can trust.” Far from intimidating, Leapman sees data journalism as exciting: “The most important thing about journalism is the role it’s held for hundreds of years which is giving people information and power and journalism will continue to be a growth industry.”

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