FiveThirtyEight is a data journalism organization. Let me explain what we mean by that, and why we think the intersection of data and journalism is so important.
If you’re a casual reader of FiveThirtyEight, you may associate us with election forecasting, and in particular with the 2012 presidential election, when our election model “called” 50 out of 50 states right.
Certainly we had a good night. But this was and remains a tremendously overrated accomplishment. Other forecasters, using broadly similar methods, performed just as well or nearly as well, correctly predicting the outcome in 48 or 49 or 50 states. It wasn’t all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.
Instead, our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media. Commentators as prestigious as George F. Will and Michael Barone predicted not just a Mitt Romney win, but a Romney sweep in most or all of the swing states. Meanwhile, some news reporters defaulted to characterizing the races as “toss-ups” when the evidence suggested otherwise.1
The other reason I say our election forecasts were overrated is because they didn’t represent the totality, or even the most important part, of our journalism at FiveThirtyEight. We also covered topics ranging from the increasing acceptance of gay marriage to the election of the new pope, along with subjects in sports, science, lifestyle and economics. Relatively little of this coverage entailed making predictions. Instead, it usually involved more preliminary steps in the data journalism process: collecting data, organizing data, exploring data for meaningful relationships, and so forth. Data journalists have the potential to add value in each of these ways, just as other types of journalists can add value by gathering evidence and writing stories.