opinion | Data as a new journalistic tool to control power

It was news but not complete news: Dutch water quality is poor and not improving, according to the headline Norwegian Refugee Council Monday newspaper.

Almost all rivers, lakes and ditches in the Netherlands are extremely dirty, and do not meet European quality standards, which can lead to penalties such as suspension of the license, such as the nitrogen crisis. The water quality also deteriorated in two thirds of the places between 2015 and 2021. „This was shown by searching for data by Norwegian Refugee Council‘, reported in the newsletter, but already made clear in March, from the alarming statements of experts and reports from the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). “The Netherlands risks a water crisis in 2027,” a science editorial wrote at the time.

What happened in the meantime? Anyway, this data quest, by new data editors Norwegian Refugee Council It was held this spring. It consists of five full-time editors, who focus entirely on journalistic research with data as the source and programming skills and Excel as a tool, often in collaboration with editors who specialize in the subject from other editorial offices. “The data from the PBL was two years old, so we wondered: What about now?” Says Winny de Jong, Head of Data Editing. “You can wait for the next report, but you can also go directly to the source to see how things are going now. Then you have news.”

This source was data – publicly available, water information house online. Well, to put it simply: data journalist Rik Wassens found information about water quality in a long, almost hackable list of Excel files and data files. Water quality is measured at 745 points across the country, based on more than ten indicators and concentrations of nearly a hundred chemicals. Although Wassens wasn’t too bad: “It’s become a 600,000-row file, Excel can still work with that.” The Information House staff wanted to show him the way as a “caring layman,” but he’s also been busy for weeks trying to make sense of the dataset.

Measuring point 130006

But then you have something. A set of datasets showed that 460 of the 745 waters in 2021 scored worse on one or more criteria than they did in 2015, while improvement should be visible before Brussels begins imposing fines in 2027. Making that comparison with previous years is that hard in the March reports, and it couldn’t be done yet – because the data hadn’t been looked at that way yet. For example, data editors want to “add value” themselves by “asking their own questions to the data,” Wassens says.

And private data research has also yielded something other than hard numbers or a graph, which is still the dominant picture of what data journalism brings. It made it possible for Monday’s background story to begin at “measuring point 130006, in De Donge”, the Brabant stream between Oosterhout and Waalwijk. “Putting all the assessments together, it turns out that the water quality there has deteriorated in many respects. There was something going on here. Through the lens of the data, we saw where we should go to find out the reasons for this decline.”

Pretty deep, but it’s also a matter of good storytelling: “You have to make sure that the data journalism story, by numbers, standards, and graphs, isn’t going to become the newspaper’s cod liver oil,” Wassens says.

Become Norwegian Refugee Council Like your data research institute doing the dirty work that government agencies leave behind?

President Winnie de Jong sees it simpler: as a continuation of the journalistic mission NRC sees set aside, at most with new resources. “The difference is the source of the materials and the toolbox.” The “regular” journalist goes out, asks questions, and then tells the audience – the same goes for a data journalist. “More and more parts of our lives, from the world, are becoming visible in the data, so to be able to report that, you have to be aware of the data.”


In her view, the priority should be to find stories, not on the data itself, or visualizations that present the data in an accessible way, which was the focus of so much data journalism in the past. De Jong wants to go beyond the “low hanging fruit” – she mentions the widely circulated annual report on the most popular baby boy and girl names for newborns. “This is data journalism, but it doesn’t lead to many new insights.” This requires the next step: Questions must be asked. “We don’t have to wait for the pace of planning agencies and institutes. In the gas file, the press did not wait for The Hague to say sorry, but came to its own conclusions.” In this way, data journalism, says de Jong, fits into the journalistic model of power-control, the function of democracy watchdog.

With the nitrogen profile in mind, this is not a redundant luxury. Comment on Norwegian Refugee CouncilThe Water Quality Survey, Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (I&W) said that “chance for exceptions” to standards at the EU level is already being considered, and that “there is hardly any actual deterioration in water quality”. That would be a matter of changing standards and problems of measurement. But the numbers showed that much of the water is deteriorating and that water managers are concerned about it. Five percent of the water will be able to meet European standards by 2027, they think,” Wassens says. “This data is public, so why not use it to control power?”

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