Making the most of numbers

Everyone knows that people who go into journalism aren’t any good with numbers, right? I often joke that if they were, they’d be in a more remunerative line of work. But however math averse most journalists are, they have learn how to deal with data because it’s the root of so many great stories. A team at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found a terrific story by analyzing murder convictions in Georgia. The four-part series, A Matter of Life and Death, begins like this:

Two men begged a ride from a Wal-Mart shopper in Milledgeville. Minutes later he was dead, shot once in the head. The killers sit on death row.

Two men begged a ride from a college student at a Tifton nightclub. Minutes later he was dead, shot four times in the stomach and chest. The killers are serving life in prison and will be eligible for parole.

Two exceedingly similar crimes, just a few months and 135 miles apart. Two starkly different outcomes.

Notice the lack of data in the lead, which uses two anecdotes to set up the story’s thesis: getting the death penalty in Georgia is “as predictable as a lightning strike.” Only after the reader is hooked do the numbers come into play, and they’re used effectively:

The Journal-Constitution found 1,315 murder cases from 1995 through 2004 that could have been prosecuted for death. But prosecutors pursued a death sentence for only one in four of those killers. Only one in 23 of them landed on death row.

The story is also a good example of what you can do online with a data-driven story.

The paper posted Excel spreadsheets of the data it worked with, and provided a thorough explanation of how the data was analyzed. It’s instructive and impressive to read how carefully the team scrubbed and checked the data. In addition to the obligatory map and video, the multimedia package includes four cool “can you guess the verdict” quizzes based on actual cases from the data. Thanks to Jon Marshall’s NewsGems blog at SPJ for pointing out the AJC series.

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