Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

Data, media and democracy

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From modifying website interfaces to ensuring that metadata and contact information are clear and uniform, federal statistical agencies can better help news media and the public

By John Wihbey, Journalist’s Resource


As part of our participation in the December 2014 meeting of the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology, Journalist’s Resource at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center authored recommendations to help the principal federal statistical agencies communicate better with media and, by extension, interested citizens. A variety of ideas were generated through website analysis, testing and conversations with journalists and experts. Agencies could substantially increase their potential audience by designing more for the “broad middle” of Web users, who may not be familiar with the federal statistics landscape. Proposed ideas are as follows:

1) Media-communications recommendations: Hold regular workshops with journalists of all kinds, particularly non-specialists; when journalists need help with data, provide access to expert government officials; and regularly offer media organizations the chance to articulate their needs for original data collection. 2) Data content- and presentation-related recommendations: Rethink what agencies collect with a more “citizen-centric” approach; find data that speak to the technology revolution and related changes; stay relevant and current on the Web, repurposing materials as news trends emerge and emphasizing shorter “quick hits” from large datasets and reports; and feature salient data points in large reports and design visualizations for news sites. 3) Technical and Website recommendations: Consider a more standardized Web user interface (UI) across agencies — and responsive design; build an intuitive, app-like version of each site for more general users; design for better site search and search engine optimization; be clear about the quality of data; strengthen user information and metadata; offer many data formats and consider use cases and accessibility; and create more Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that are tailored to the needs of news and information companies.


From unemployment levels and energy usage to housing patterns and rates of violent crime, the 13 federal principal statistical agencies of the United States produce vitally important public data. Without this information, the functioning of civil society, politics and commercial enterprise would be diminished, as citizens, policymakers, businesses and media of all kinds rely on it every day to understand the world, inform their communities and make crucial decisions.

Each year the federal government spends about $3.7 billion on the data collection, processing and dissemination performed by its principal statistical agencies. This includes well-known government institutions such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in addition to agencies that examine agriculture, transportation and myriad other areas of American life. Specifically, these chief agencies are:

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