Porter Novelli

In May 1821, The Guardian newspaper (or Manchester Guardian as it was then known) published a table of data comparing average annual spending and the number of pupils attending schools in Manchester and Salford.

The newspaper’s first ever use of data informed readers about the number of students receiving free education and how many poor children lived in the city. While this data may now be easy to source, in 1821 it was considered ground breaking.

Those working at The Guardian may not have used the same tools for analysis as we now do, but the power of research-based journalism remains just as significant in today’s media.

Journalists continue to seize editorial opportunities by uncovering new insights from data obtained from reputable sources, and have often taken upon the roles of both ‘investigators’ and ‘researchers’ in their quest for a story.

The Guardian remains a leading media outlet in this form of journalism. Technology blog GigaOM recently reported:

“The Guardian can easily spend three weeks generating the source information and designing a visualisation…The results bring understanding and reader engagement to topics that are otherwise discussed with a lot of words or static numbers. Readers can and do play around with the information, share it widely and discuss it for long periods after it appears online.

Commentators at SxSW 2013 discussed the impact of research-based journalism and whether meaningful data on its own had the ability to create a news story. They warned journalists of falling into the trap of “reporting on data without any real theme or a personal element” that would resonate with an audience.

While the ability to access resources online may have eased the search for data, it was also argued that journalists still need time to absorb research studies and build robust conclusions.

But does that mean the search for data should only be left to the media?

The increasing availability of data across a range of disciplines – such as health, education, retail, entertainment or sport – should encourage public relations professionals to also delve into research studies, provided they are educated to accurately interpret data and pinpoint insights that support a broader story.

This would not only allow us to share data with the media, but also with our key influencers in online communities. More than often there are conversations already taking place in social media that would benefit from our findings.

However, like journalists, we must always remember that it’s not just about the data. What’s most important is the story behind the numbers.