Data and graphics create a new kind of journalist

Take clean and accurate data, strong visualization and excellent writing and you get some of the most powerful reporting available right now. Sarah Frostenson has the job title of graphics editor at Politico, but she’s really a new breed of reporter.

“Graphic editor is very similar to the graphics reporter role,” Frostenson said. “It involves identifying useful data sets, building out visuals and doing the reporting and writing for it. That’s a shift in the field; journalists are now both building the interactive and doing the writing.”

Frostenson graduated from Dartmouth in 2011 with a BA in history and a minor in environmental studies, but she now focuses primarily on health and science reporting. Before Politico, she was a graphics reporter at Vox. One of the stories she’s most proud of producing involved visualizing the challenges faced by consumers who wanted to participate in Obamacare.


For Frostenson, the power of graphics is two-fold.

“Some of it is particularly to be visual and explanatory; we are creating more stories where the chart stands on its own, it’s not just something inserted into a text story.” Frostenson says a second benefit is that interactive graphics can be immersive and exploratory.

She especially likes some of the work being done by the New York Times and others that invites audiences to test their assumptions such as an interactive that asked readers to determine what got better or worse under President Obama.


This type of work looks daunting to many journalists who are unfamiliar with the tools and processes involved in data reporting. Frostenson says she’s most often using JavaScript, Python and SQL databases to do her work, but she says there are plenty of third-party tools, like Tableau and CartoDB, that may be more accessible.

“Start in Excel and when you’re ready get more visual and more interested in design, then you want to try Tableau and then learn basic JavaScript,” Frostenson said. “And there are a lot of terrific data reporters who don’t build visualizations at all, but they can identify trends and work well with developers.”

Frostenson says it’s not unusual to work as part of a team producing interactives, but the best team members will be those who have a basic understanding of the power of data and visualizations.

“It’s where journalism is headed in some ways, we’re now better able to fact check by looking at reliable data, and so you need to have fluency in data analysis.”

The Global Investigative Journalism Network has excellent resources for anyone looking to get started with data-driven reporting, as does NICAR.