Behind the scenes: How the Sky News Data team exposed global inequality in the vaccination program

Tuesday 21 September 2021
By Carmen Aguilar García

Hear more from our Sky News Data Journalism team here.

Data journalism is not something new, but the pandemic has put the spotlight on the connection between digital information and telling stories. Why? Because of the great volume of data that is now available and the necessity to find and tell better stories on one of the greatest global challenges modern society has faced.

At data journalism’s core is journalism itself, it is about how through data we can find and tell stories that wouldn’t be found using normal newsgathering techniques. A good example of this is The Vaccine Divide Story that I reported on and published in February 2021.

Carmen Aguilar García is a Senior Data Journalist for Sky News.

The process

Even before the first person received their COVID-19 vaccination, there were concerns there would be an unequal distribution of vaccine 

Scientists had warned that this was a global problem which needed a global and coordinated solution. So several weeks after the first countries started to vaccinate their population, we set out to find out if the global solution was equal and if not, how big was the gap between rich and poor nations.    

Many data stories start in this way, with an editorial question or journalistic hypothesis for which data can provide an answer. The first step is to identify the appropriate data to use. This means finding a trustworthy source, but also checking the quality of the data, understanding it and being aware of its limitations.    

Sometimes there is a unique source that will provide the information we need. For this story,  there wasn’t.    

We identified several sources, each of them providing a part of the global picture we were looking for, but we had to complement that information with research. By checking official websites and national media reports we compensated for the lack of data we had in some countries and were able to build our database.    

The database which an analysis story is based on is critical. It’s why it is highly important to spend time cleaning, structuring and standardising the data, adding extra information relevant for the analysis when needed, and cross-checking there are no mistakes.    

Once we are confident with the data we are working with, we can start analysing. This is like carrying out an interview with the data, and the more knowledge a journalist has on the topic, the better the questions. And it’s why it is crucial to complement any tasks with the data with research on the subject, such as conversations with experts and academics.    

At the end of that “interview”, we identify the most relevant answers. For The Vaccine Divide we could prove there was inequality in the distribution and administration of the vaccine. We found that for every dose administered in a poor country there had been 23 administered in a rich nation. We also identified the countries that had bought doses to vaccinate four and five times their own population.    

We could confirm all of that without relying on opinions or comments of outside organisations or people - the facts spoke for themselves.    

Our work as data journalists does not finish once we have found the story. In coordination with other reporters and designers, we discuss which other elements our story needs, like interviews or human stories, and the most effective way of communicating it in an engaging and understandable way for our audience.    

It is not compulsory for a data story to use visualisations, but in many occasions they are a powerful element for an effective communication. They can help make it easier to understand a story but can also guide users through a visual journey or personalise their experience and explore the data according to their interest.      

The process of creating visualisations needs to be carefully planned and done in coordination with other departments so it is in line with the rest of the story and to create a coherent and impactful product.    

Collaboration with other professionals and departments within the newsroom makes data journalism shine. This is a multidisciplinary field which sits in the middle of a newsroom of reporters, designers, developers and statisticians. An ability to collaborate and work with all of them results in a brilliant data product. 

At Sky News we’re investing in the people and technology to meet the demands of our audience for data journalism. Breaking news has always been second nature to us, but we believe the future of journalism will be putting data at the heart of our news gathering and reporting.   

But we shouldn’t forget that data journalism is just journalism. It is telling stories that affect people and that people care about. The only difference between data journalism and traditional reporting is that we work with structured information.    

And this process of finding stories in data is not new. In the 1970s, Philip Meyers coined the term “precision journalism” which is very much the base of data journalism; the use of scientific techniques and data collection and analysis in journalism.    

The main difference in the present is the volume of data and the digital technologies and tools available. The pandemic has emphasised how relevant it is to use cutting-edge tech to find new stories more quickly and process the relevant data to explain the situation at every moment. Because with something as critically important as global health crisis, people can and want to make their own best-informed decisions and understand the decisions that are being made on their behalf.  

Hear more from our Sky News Data Journalism team here.

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