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Every journalist and PR should take Google’s Data Journalism course: Here’s why

Publishers and news outlets have not always seen Google as a friend, given its dominance of the online search space and the critical role it plays in determining how much traffic – and therefore revenue – a news website will receive.

However, in 2018 Google launched the Google News Initiative (GNI) which committed to spend $300m over the subsequent three years on its journalism-boosting projects. And by 2022, this funding had been met, with over 7,000 news partners in more than 120 countries receiving a slice of the pie. 

The aims of the GNI are to advance the practice of quality journalism, strengthen publisher business models and cultivate a global news community.

There have been criticisms of the GNI. Some, claiming it is purely a PR play by a mega-corporation in the face of increasing scrutiny from global governing bodies. Others suggesting that the vast majority of Google’s funding has been given to legacy news institutions in Western Europe, leaving non-profit, independent and local outlets out in the cold, struggling to gain visibility.

The counter to this is that, to exist and grow, Google relies on being able to show high-quality search results which result from high-quality information and journalism. There is a symbiotic relationship here: if high-quality journalism doesn’t flourish, nor will Google’s ability to provide access to open and reliable information.

Regardless of which side of the debate you stand on, a core component of the GNI is to use technology to build digital journalism skills. To this end a Training Centre has been created to teach journalists the best ways to use Google’s tools for reporting and storytelling. 

I recently completed the GNI Data Journalism course. I wish I’d done it years ago and think that every journalist and PR should take it – here’s why.

It’s free

The course is not a tool for making Google more profit. It’s funded from the GNI pot and is what it says on the tin – a tool for improving a journalist’s digital skills and thereby the news ecosystem.

There is no barrier to entry to the course which makes it as accessible as possible. The course consists of 18 separate lessons which can be started, paused and picked up again at any time. The second half of the course brings up some quizzes which need to be completed before moving onto the next lesson. These aren’t arduous and it’s clear that the true benefit lies in recapping key information – not in getting a perfect score.

The ability to source and interpret data opens up a world of insightful stories

Being honest, it’s not ground-breaking to make the point that data can and should be used to create genuinely insightful stories. The difficulty for me has always been knowing what kind of data is available, where that data can be found, how it can be used and how it can be displayed in a way that benefits the content I’m creating. Where do you begin with a whole internet’s worth of disparate sources?

The data journalism course doesn’t teach you about every single source of publicly available data in the world, that would be madness. But it does provide a number of good starting points.

For instance, Google’s Dataset Search – a search engine for datasets – and its Public Data Explorer which helps to explore and visualise large datasets. These tools alone give access to millions of datasets which can be used for campaign ideation, trend spotting and theory validation.

The course also covers Google Trends in detail. It’s a tool many know exists, but the level of granularity and the extent to which it can be used to build stories, perhaps isn’t.

Having completed the course, I now understand how these tools can be used to find and analyse relevant data as I research (hopefully) compelling stories.

Data visualisation is key to data-led stories being told and understood

Prior to taking the course my data visualisation skills were limited to basic Excel functionality. And, whilst I had become something of an ‘Insert recommended chart’ afficionado, there’s a whole world of tools out there to analyse and display different kinds of data in a more digestible and aesthetically pleasing way.

The course covers several tools and platforms to help visualise data, some created entirely by Google, others with which the company has partnered. My personal favourite is Flourish, which is designed “to help newsrooms increase the quality and quantity of their data stories”.

You can choose from a plethora of data visualisation templates – from Sankey diagrams to line chart races – and use the provided guide to add your own data.

This is just one brief example with the overall point being that data-led stories resonate so much more strongly, with properly presented data – whether you’re a PR creating blog content to earn links or a journalist prepping the latest General Election polling results.

Being able to leverage data to tell insightful stories is a fundamental part of successful journalism and PR, and that’s not about to change. At its core, that’s what Google’s Data Journalism course is about; providing a resource to upgrade digital journalism skills and drive good-quality stories. And that’s why I think that every journalist and PR should take it.  

Tom Pallott
Strategist, Definition

Part of the Definition Group, Definition Agency is a digital public relations agency that combines PR and media relations, SEO, content marketing and social media to deliver effective growth strategies for its clients.