Q&A: Samantha Sunne

A conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion in data reporting.

Coauthored by Mike Reilley and Samantha Sunne, Data + Journalism: A Story-Driven Approach to Learning Data Reporting offers tools to journalists and newsrooms, from data visualization to building trust.

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Since its publication last month, Samantha Sunne has released an additional chapter on diversity, equity, and inclusion in data reporting, specifically. 

For this week’s Q&A, we spoke with Sunne — also a ProPublica Local Reporting Fellow — about the bonus chapter, the book’s background, and how she’s learning to incorporate DEI into her own work. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you start by telling me about the book, broadly?

The book was co-written by me and professor Mike Reilley, who teaches data journalism and other topics in Chicago. It’s an introductory textbook to data journalism, so I think of it as a really good resource for journalists who have not really dipped their toes into data so far. There are good introductions to spreadsheets and stuff like that and it also goes into more advanced tech topics like writing code and SQL analysis. 

But we really wanted to emphasize storytelling over just plain numbers. I mean, it’s not a math textbook — it’s a textbook on how to use data as a tool for reporting. So, like I said, I think it’s really good for professional journalists who want to learn how to do that or students who are at the stage where they’re still learning entry journalism skills and want to include data as an essential tool for that. 

What inspired you to publish an additional chapter on diversity, equity, and inclusion in data reporting? 

Mike originally wrote an outline for the book years ago, it just took that long to go through the publishing and the writing and the editing and the contract signing and everything. And we definitely talk about ethics and transparency and having compassion for your sources and your audiences in the book, but we didn’t specifically talk about diversity or equity issues. I think it is a central point in a lot of the book, but we never had a part of the book that was specifically about how to cover diversity or equity issues or common challenges you might come across. 

We also felt like there’s not a lot of guidance for that out there already. There’s a lot of guidance in general for how to use data or how to be inclusive when searching for sources, but we saw very little that combined those two topics. So we felt like it would be a good addition to the book and we also thought it would just be useful to contribute to the community.

What outlets or organizations do you think are doing this work well? 

When it comes to incorporating diversity and inclusion as part of their goals, there’s a few journalism organizations that come to mind. OpenNews is one of them. They run a Slack space called the DEI Coalition for Anti-Racist, Equitable, and Just Newsrooms and they’ve been really, really good about thinking in a super smart way about these issues for a long time. Another is IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors. I think, especially in the last five years or so, IRE has been really impressive in how much it has really surfaced, it is a main goal of theirs. 

Actually, at the [National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting] conference in a month or two, myself and a couple other people in the industry, are planning to get together at an NICAR session and jointly plan another playbook or handbook for DEI and data. That’s in the planning stage and separate from the book chapter, it’s more like a collaborative ongoing project that we might end up publishing. It would be an ongoing handbook like the Data Journalism Handbook or the Participatory Journalism Playbook

When it comes to outlets, I would say that a lot of the legacy outlets might have bigger challenges when it comes to this topic just because they’ve been around for so long. They’ve had their reporting and editing processes for so long that it can be pretty tough, I think, to adjust to a new way of thinking or a whole new protocol, especially when that protocol involves things like ethics. 

When I think of outlets that are doing it especially well, I would say the more recently founded ones might have been more able to incorporate DEI into their founding principles or founding way of thinking — for example, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in terms of national ones that everybody might recognize.

How does your professional and personal experience affect this work?

I would say that, when it comes to incorporating DEI thinking into my work, I’m not yet where I want to be. So, I’ve been trying to learn a lot from places like the DEI Coalition and workshops at IRE where I feel like I can really devote time and learning to this issue in the same way that I devoted time and learning to things like writing Python or learning how to structure a news lead. 

As a young, white person, DEI was not at the front of my mind for most of my journalism career, which has only been 10 or 15 years if you count college. Looking back, I definitely wish I had centered that more, but you can’t really go back in time, so I think it’s best to focus on what you can do now to improve yourself — and hopefully help others improve, as well.

Investigative reporting is my day job and I specialize in investigative and data, which has always had a public service journalism bent to it. In that sense, DEI has been featured in my work because, a lot of times, that’s one of the public service aspects that we’re reporting on. But I wouldn’t say that I really sought out DEI expertise as something to learn about or to focus on until the last few years, when IRE and some other places started putting more out there about it. 

So, I’m trying to learn more and I’m trying to help others learn more. The more I do it, the more it helps my work, too. I think there’s been some shifts and thinking about trauma-informed journalism as well. When I went to university 10 or 15 years ago, I definitely did not have a nuanced understanding of interacting with victims of trauma or potential victims of trauma as a reporter, and I think there’s been more conversation about that in the journalism industry since. That’s another thing I’m trying to improve as a journalist and hopefully help everybody improve along with me since there are admittedly areas in which the journalism industry should improve.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

I am hoping this is just the starting point. Personally, I feel like this chapter is definitely not quite as long or as in-depth as I would like it to be, and that was mainly due to the lack of resources that exist for this specific topic. So I’m hoping this is one early draft in a much bigger ongoing conversation about DEI in data reporting. That NICAR session, for instance, is an open collaboration between the speakers and the attendees, so I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot of collaboration over the next several years on coming together to share resources and hopefully formulate some good guidance on this.

This conversation was edited by Curtis Yee.

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