Good data or bad? Practicing journalists from all over Alaska learned the difference and how to use data at a five-day training fellowship in January. Today’s post reports on the training and how journalists plan to use what they learned in covering alcohol-related issues in Alaska.

Most of us have heard the term junk science. In the same category, there’s bad data. At a five-day fellowship in data journalism, reporters from news organizations across the state learned to discern data quality, and how to use data accurately and effectively in their reporting on alcohol-related issues.

10540634_10152569118917644_950908066914890852_n-1The training, Jan. 5-9 at the University of Alaska Anchorage, was sponsored and organized by the Alaska Press Club, with funding from the Recover Alaska Media Project Fund at the Alaska Community Foundation (ACF). Recover Alaska Media Project is a partnership of ACF, Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Providence Health & Services Alaska, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Wells Fargo and Rasmuson Foundation.

The training was conducted by Lam Thuy Vo, multimedia reporter with Al-Jazeera America, and Abraham Hyatt, an independent data journalist. Segments included data collection, organization, culling, and interrogation. Participants were exposed to examples, both complex and simple, of graphic/static and dynamic online journalism that visualizes data both correctly and inaccurately. They were given tools to write basic code, do some html and visualize data they collected for their projects (including access to the data visualization software CartoDB). They also had specific CartoDB training. The software will be made available to their newsrooms and APC will offer additional training for other staff in the spring.

KTUU web editor Kyle Hopkins and photographer Marc Lester of the Alaska Dispatch-News, who recently worked together on a yearlong reporting project investigating alcohol-related issues in Alaska, gave a presentation to the group based on their experiences covering the topic. Each team had one-on-one time with instructors Vo and

Participating fellows came from KYUK radio Bethel, KSKA radio Anchorage, KNOM radio Nome, KTVA Channel 11 television Anchorage, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in partnership with KTUU Channel 2 television Anchorage, two University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students and LegHead report, an online-only political news site based in Kodiak.

The fellows will apply the training in these specific projects:

• Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/KTUU – Fairbanks/Anchorage
Fellows Matt Buxton, Weston Morrow, Joe Fox, and Kyle Hopkins are analyzing the impacts of the transition from dry or prohibition communities to local sales through Local Option Laws. They are examining public health indicators such as crime rates, hospital visits and educational outcomes for communities that have recently made the change.

• KTVA – Anchorage
Fellows Hope Miller and Jason Sear are looking at the overall effectiveness of the Anchorage Wellness Court, a jail diversion program that includes substance abuse treatment.

• KNOM – Nome
Fellows Francesca Fenzi and Jennifer Ruckel are doing a project focused on NEST (Nome’s emergency shelter). Most of NEST’s clients are from villages outside Nome, which is a rural hub and the only “wet” community in the Bering Strait Region. The news team is looking at the intersection of alcohol abuse and homelessness in the region, and how Nome’s emergency shelter works as an alternative to law enforcement in providing a short-term solution. They will also explore the lack of long-term solutions, such as accessible/affordable housing and alcohol treatment centers.

• KYUK – Bethel
Fellow Ben Matheson is documenting the struggles of communities to stem the flow of illegal alcohol. It includes data from law enforcement and conversations with community leaders and stakeholders.

• KSKA – Anchorage
Fellows Anne Hillman and Zach Hughes are focusing on alcohol use among youth and how it’s handled by the dept of juvenile justice and youth experiences in treatment centers.

• LegHed – Kodiak
Fellow Maggie Wall is looking at the cost of alcoholism on the state in terms of the loss of lives in vehicle accidents.

• UAF Student Project
Student fellows Lakeidra Chavis and Annie Bartholomew are using decade-long data from the Youth Risk Behavioral Survey to analyze the downward trend of teen alcohol abuse in Alaska.

Feedback from the fellows was positive. They most valued the hands-on technical training.

“Instruction from Lam was very helpful for conceptualizing data-based graphics. She also gave great advice that was tailored to each of our newsrooms’ situations. Abraham’s presentations showed some very useful ways to prepare data for use.”

“Learning better ways to compile data and then present it in a way that is easily digestible for readers. Also really liked how Abraham and Lam talked about good data vs. bad data. There’s a lot of bad data out there and being able to spot it is important for journalists.”

“Fantastic instructors working with us doing hands-on work. Everyone enjoyed the coding workshop quite a bit. Feedback from instructors and fellows on projects was fantastic.”

The Alaska Press Club is building a data journalism track for journalists statewide during its annual training in late April. The training will also offer rural/small-town journalism track. As part of that, there will be a panel focused on coverage of alcohol and other behavioral health issues. The fellows who have completed their work will present their projects.