As anticipated, Italian data journalists questioned the reliability of official data and spotted various ‘data flaws’ in the datasets made available by national health authorities and the government. Despite a huge effort from the Italian public administration, incomplete official data were frequently provided to the public, or data gathered in incoherent ways and incapable of reflecting the actual impact of the pandemic in Italy. This was mostly caused by a variety of factors, including the fact that testing policies changed various times in the course of 2020 and Italian regions followed different approaches, making the counting of the cases very unreliable. Data on infections in Lombardy, for instance, was calculated differently than that on Veneto or Sicily. As early as March 2020, a popular news story defined data objectivity as “an optical illusion”.
These inherent flaws in the official data inspired Italian data journalists to follow different leads and to look beyond official sources to find more meaningful and representative information. For instance, Eco di Bergamo, a daily newspaper in the city of Bergamo, one of Italy’s most severely hit areas in early 2020, inquired about the overall numbers of deaths in all municipalities of the province, finding that the official data showed only a limited portion of the actual death toll caused by the pandemic. The newspaper’s approach gained international visibility and was replicated elsewhere.
Interviewed data journalists also questioned the average data literacy and skills of Italian journalists, underlying the overall unpreparedness of most newsrooms to cope with statistics and data science in such an overwhelming way. This was judged as problematic, affecting negatively the general coverage of the pandemic: in particular, according to interviewed journalists, the mainstream media frequently committed mistakes or published inaccurate data-driven content. Overall, official figures have frequently gone unquestioned or saddled with an unduly ‘positivistic’ approach, sometimes referred to as ‘dataism’ – that is, a misplaced belief in the assumed objectivity of numbers.
Finally, the journalists interviewed assessed the coverage of the pandemic in light of the ongoing structural problems of Italian data journalism. In particular, they pointed to the mainstream media’s lack of investment in the field and the limitations of outsourcing to freelancers, whose honoraria in Italy are traditionally low, the symptoms of very precarious working conditions. Moreover, the lack of a proper transparency culture in the Italian political-bureaucratic system played its own part in making access to data more complex.
Overall, results of my research confirm how fundamental data journalism can be in making sense of massive events with clear ‘datafied’ traits. When it comes to Italian journalism, already very engaged data journalists responded with enthusiasm to the task, providing excellent work in precarious conditions, with little support from mainstream outlets. What emerges from this research is the existence of a ‘data divide’ in data-driven reporting, caused by both the skills available to journalists and the quality of data available.
Interviewed journalists have frequently stressed the difference between mere ‘graph-making’ and actual data-driven reporting. The all but frictionless co-existence of these two dimensions may pose a long-term problem for the growth of data journalism well beyond the Italian context, exacerbating the difference between actual investigative and data-driven reporting and other forms of more passive reporting on unquestioned, and potentially unreliable data.