“It’s a Great Time To Be Involved in Data-Driven Journalism” – An Interview With EDJNet’s Chiara Sighele and Lorenzo Ferrari

The European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), set up in 2017, is all about “producing and promoting data-driven coverage of European topics”. As of May 2021, it has 29 members (including DW) in 14 different countries, and the EC has just granted a new round of funding. Time for a chat with Chiara Sighele and Lorenzo Ferrari, staff members of the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), but first and foremost: the main coordinators of EDJNet.

Chiara, Lorenzo, EDJNet has become an impressive, sizable project. How much time do you spend on it–and what does your job look like?

Chiara: As program coordinator, my main job is to help create and realize a common vision of EDJNet as a network of news organisations committed to exploring new ways of covering European affairs. Since the project operates with the financial support of the European Commission, I also need to take care of managerial and financial tasks–and maintain transparent, constructive relations with our donors. All in all, making sure the collaborative endeavour that is EDJNet can continue and live up to its potential is one of the most exciting professional opportunities I've had so far. I enjoy it immensely. 

Lorenzo: My job at OBCT is also entirely devoted to EDJNet, so I work on it five days a week. Besides coordinating the data team at OBCT, I'm in charge of the overall editorial coordination of the network with the support of Voxeurop. A good deal of my time is spent on correspondence with the various members of the network, making sure that activities move on, ideas circulate, questions are addressed, and everyone gets the most out of their membership. I've followed the project since its launch in 2017, and it's exciting to see it grow year after year. Despite a number of challenges, occasional disappointments and room for improvement, EDJNet now looks a lot like we had envisioned it.

What is the current status of DDJ in the EU? What are the differences between countries? Is there a hot spot, a problem child, a project that stands out?

Lorenzo: It's a great time to be involved in DDJ. There's so much going on in the EU and across the world, and great stories are published every single day. If I look back at the media landscape of 2017–when we started–and compare it to the one of 2021, I see a big difference. DDJ has become more mainstream, much more people are acquainted with it, and that goes for journalists and audiences. However, DDJ hasn't reached its full potential yet. The picture inside the EU is pretty mixed: In countries like Germany or Spain there are many media outlets that embrace DDJ and lead the way in Europe–just think of the great work that's being done at Algorithm Watch, Civio, Correctiv, El Confidencial, El Pais, or Die Zeit. On the other hand, there are countries where DDJ is still struggling. I'm thinking of several smaller countries in Central/Eastern Europe. But also Italy was lagging behind until very recently. Reasons for this include financial constraints, work overload, and conservative attitudes.

What's the latest hype in DDJ and how do you deal with increasingly complex technology, like drones, satellites, sensors, AI?

Lorenzo: Well, at EDJNet we haven't really explored these new frontiers of DDJ yet, except for some limited experiments with AI filters or with the automated generation of news leads and reports. The latter is particularly interesting for us, as the machine can effectively identify newsworthy patterns or outliers in large amounts of data. We're also very interested in testing any solution that facilitates the circulation of content across language barriers. It's all a question of resources, however. The vast majority of our members are small, independent organisations, with limited staff and budgets. There's also the question of focus: Some of the new tools aren't necessarily useful for certain stories. However, we think of EDJNet as a learning community–so we're happy to explore new ways of doing DDJ whenever we have the opportunity.

What are the main challenges for EDJNet?

Chiara: Funding is an obvious challenge. For many of our members, but also for the network itself. Fortunately, we've secured a large new grant which will enable us to operate at least until 2023.  So now the main challenge is once again finding good ways to collaborate within the network. This means getting to know each other's peculiarities and points of strength, managing linguistic and cultural differences, integrating members with different profiles, building mutual trust, motivating a big community, fine-tuning internal workflows, and so on. This all requires a good deal of perseverance and inventiveness. Things can get frustrating at times, but they're usually a lot of fun. Sometimes it's also challenging to facilitate communication between scientists and journalists, but we almost always manage. After all, the process of transferring scientific knowledge is crucial for a better informed public debate.

Do you participate in the fight against mis- and disinformation, e.g. by exposing data stories that rely on framing and doctored numbers?

Lorenzo: Our goals don't include exposing fraudulent data stories by third parties. We try to approach the "fake news" and trust issue in a positive way. For example, we're very transparent about our own choices, sources, and methods. Our members sign the EDJNet editorial charter, which provides them with full editorial independence, but calls for accurate reporting and transparency at all times. We discuss larger investigations before they get published. And if we made a mistake, we tell our readers and document what went wrong. In this way, we hopefully lead by example and empower both European journalists and audiences.

Where do you see EDJNet in 2023? What about the funding of the network?

Chiara: In the next two years, we're going to fine-tune our model of transnational journalism, strengthen collaborations, and expand our publishing partnerships in Europe, so we can increase EDJNet's outreach and impact. However, we don't plan on making EDJNet a media player of its own. We want to keep it an open hub for DDJ in Europe, ready to play a supporting role whenever independent, transnational, innovative journalism needs it.  With regard to funding, EDJNet will continue to rely on grants to a significant degree, but we'll also try and find some new sources of income.

So how can an organization become a member? And what kind of members are you looking for at the moment?

Lorenzo: We welcome new associate partners to the network on a rolling basis, as long as their profiles and goals fit EDJNet's. There's no membership fee. And  we're always open to setting up publishing and media partnerships with journalism events, research projects, or NGOs.  We're mostly interested in building alliances with actors who operate in countries we currently struggle to cover and with actors who cover our core fields of reporting. And of course, we're looking for exchange with other organisations advancing transnational (data) journalism. For more info on how to join us, simply visit our website.

Thank you for your time, Chiara and Lorenzo!

Photos: EDJNet

Alexander Plaum
Eva Lopez