Election 2013 media panel

Data Journalism: Where’s the wonderful digital wizardry in the media’s coverage of this Oz election?

Like Dorothy landing in Oz, every three years I awake to discover I’m not living in Campbelltown, South Australia, any more. Now I’ve been transported to the land of Sturt, where things appear to be very different.

Just how different I hope to discover using some of the funky data journalism tools our established media have developed in the past few weeks. These are designed to help voters get acquainted with the strange places they’re now living since being whisked away to the La-La Land of the Federal Election.

Over at The Australian’s ‘Seats To Watch’ interactive guide I discover that median weekly household income in my constituency is $1,141. However, I convince myself that things really are getting better under Labor by hopping over to The Age’s ‘Federal Election Map’ where I’m now living in the land of milk and honey on a median family income (per week) of $1,719. Maybe there is a difference between ‘families’ and ‘households’ buried in the census data they’re both using, but without more detailed explanations for how they reached these figures it’s hard to understand why things vary so much from one map to the other.

If we’re in the same place but everything’s different at the Oz and Age, how do things look at The Advertiser and it’s News Corp’ siblings? Here there’s a handy ‘Election Promises’ gizmo. Apparently, they’ve ‘spent months tracking down every candidate in Australia and collecting their promises’, to help us answer the all important question, ‘Who will you vote for?’

Well I know that ‘Family First’ won’t get my vote purely on the grounds that according to the ‘Tiser their candidate’s made no promises at all. Or maybe that makes her the ideal candidate, because the other candidates seem to be locked in a battle to see who can make the most promises. Rick Sarre for Labor is narrowly ahead of Anne Walker of the Greens with 59 promises to 55. Over the electoral border in Adelaide Kate Ellis has hit 64 promises, so Sarre had better pull his socks up if he’s going to unseat Chris Pyne, who’s stuck on only 31 promises and unchanged since the start of the campaign!

Joking aside (and it’s looking increasingly likely that any suggestion of the Liberals losing Sturt is just that) each candidate, wherever they were in the country looked more or less identical at the start of the campaign with the 'Election Promises’ site just copying the parties’ national manifestos in each constituency. But even with the addition of a few extra bribes (sorry ‘promises’) it still looks like there’s little that really differentiates a candidate in one constituency from a candidate in any other around the country. It’s a nice idea, but clunky in its execution.

The Guardian, new on the ground in Oz for this Federal election, makes big noises about its innovative data journalism. Unfortunately most of their digital journo’s seem to be tied up at HQ destroying hard drives at the moment, because all we’ve got to show for their efforts in Australia so far is the ‘Campaign watch: 2013 Australian election interactive map’, which shows where Rudd and Abbot have been on each day of the campaign. Someone remind them that we share the Westminster system with the UK, because turning this into a pseudo presidential contest just serves to further distract everyone from more important questions.

Finally, ABC does the Twitter thing with its ‘#Ausvotes Live’ map. It’s weirdly addictive watching pink blobs spawn across the nation and the map’s a neat way of showing the geography of the Twitter stream. But a straw poll is still an untrustworthy straw poll even when it’s using every journalists’ favourite social medium.

What we’re seeing so far from data journalism in the campaign seems to be a lot of what Edward Tufte calls ‘chart junk’, albeit often junk that’s dressed up with plenty of digital dressing to make it appear more appetising. What’s missing is access to original data sets that help describe the land we’re living in, plus the tools readers need to make their own mash-ups of the data. Without this we’re just getting the same one directional feed of information from our media despite the promise of interactivity that the flashy graphics seem to offer.

Maybe the digital journalism we’ve currently got on offer will satisfy most readers. After all most people seem content to reject their main chance for interaction at an election and are happy to vote below the line for the Senate. But the established news titles are losing out on an opportunity to provide real digital data wizardry in the land of Oz.