Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

How data becomes information

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Former USA Today librarian researcher Bruce Rosenstein has a new book out, Living In More Than One World, in which he takes the thoughts of management consultant and writer Peter Drucker and applies them to business and personal life. One theme in the book is how data becomes information, and how few people understand the process.

“Data are the kernels of what eventually may become knowledge,” Rosenstein writes, “but require increasing levels of understanding as they first are transformed into information. Once information progresses further and is put to use, it then becomes knowledge.”

In an information-soaked time, and especially in the news business, not understanding the difference between data, information, and knowledge is dangerous. And the news business, done right, is most often about providing information based on data so that readers gain knowledge.

An excerpt from the book in the latest issue of Training Magazine includes this on Drucker’s views about how data becomes knowledge.

“In 1990, Drucker wrote in The Economist (later reprinted in his collection ‘Managing for the Future’): ‘But data is not information. Information is data endowed with relevance and purpose. A company must decide what information it needs to operate its affairs, otherwise it will drown in data.’ Note that this was written when major databases such as LexisNexis existed, but before the World Wide Web. It’s not only companies that are in danger of drowning in data. The same is true for individuals, whether they work in companies or alone.

“He (Drucker) warned that today’s knowledge workers would have to know how to organize their information. ‘In the past,’ Drucker said, ‘we always had a desperate shortage of information. Now we have an incredible overload of data. And the executive of tomorrow will have to learn how to transform data into information, which very few know.'”

News executives receive a variety of data on how they are doing — circulation, readership, demographics, page hits, time spent on the web site — and are then expected to make strategic choices. But when is that data information?

Reporters and editors parse a sea of increasingly retrievable data to find the best stories. Done right, again, the outcome would be good information. Done poorly, the results could be little more than disconnected data points or, worse, bad information.

News organizations push data onto their web sites and invite users to develop their own information. Maybe readers want to do that. Or maybe we are ceding part of our core mission at a time when data is almost ubiquitous.

Journalism professor Alfred Hermida, who writes the REPORTR.NET blog, wrote about a panel discussion that included Aron Pilhofer, editor/interactive news at The New York Times.

“His main point,” Hermida wrote, “is that you just cannot throw data online, saying this is what machines do. He makes an argument for what he calls opinionated data. By this, he does not mean biased data. He means making editorial decisions about data. He is right to stress the need to think about how using the data helps to tells a story. And he is also spot on in arguing that data needs context and analysis for people to be able to make sense of the information.”


Written by mroberts8

November 10, 2009 at 9:43 pm

Posted in Managing, Newstraining

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