As for every journalist, this has been a challenging year for the Data Unit at Süddeutsche Zeitung, but also an exciting one. More than maybe ever we feel that we as journalists really made a difference, as we helped our readership making sense of what’s going on in the world. Three major issues dominated the lives of people in Germany in 2021: the ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, which was clearly felt for the first time, and the federal elections. The virus is invisible to the naked eye, as are the changing climate and the political impact of algorithms and social networks for the most part, so looking at and interpreting the numbers is the best way to figure out where we are and what might come next.
Süddeutsche Zeitung is the leading daily quality newspaper in Germany. Founded 1945 and based in Munich, it offers reporting, analysis and opinion for a national audience. Editorial staff is 400+ people, with bureaus in Berlin, Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Leipzig, Hamburg and Stuttgart, plus correspondents in major capitals all around the world. Its award-winning Data Team was established in 2018 to focus on data-driven reporting across all topics, with close links to the Investigations team (known for the Panama Papers, among other stories). Although it is a standalone unit of the newsroom, the team always works very closely with specialist editors from the other departments, graphic designers and developers, combining their expertise and skills with their own to achieve the best result for readers. As the team sees it, data journalism is first and foremost journalism – its goal is to tell stories, explain complex issues, expose injustice and corruption. The team is committed to constantly learning, experimenting with new tools, sources and storytelling formats, and providing the best possible experience for Süddeutsche Zeitung readers – online and in print. Exchanging ideas, sharing knowledge and learning from each other are important pillars of the philosophy. Towards their readers, they try to be as transparent as possible – publishing detailed descriptions of their methodology, source code and raw data wherever possible.
Description of portfolio:
Coronavirus Dashboard: Keeping our readers up to date with the latest and, most importantly, accurate figures on the coronavirus pandemic is a matter of the heart for us – but also a lot of work. Our Coronavirus Dashboard, which we reworked this year, has been part of our homepage www.sueddeutsche.de since the beginning of the pandemic. Many figures also get adapted to a big, daily graphic in the print edition. Lack of data standards in Germany and frequently changing data formats have repeatedly led to difficulties in our automated pipelines.
Vaccination Bot: Several million people have viewed our dashboard, as well as our Vaccination Bot. We launched the Vaccination Bot in early 2021, at a time when there was little vaccine available. The rules were complicated as to who was first. With our interactive calculator, our readers could find out approximately when they could expect to get vaccinated.
Green, yellow, Corona: For this project we tried out a methodology that was completely new to us: sensor journalism. Using our own CO2 measuring devices, we measured how high the Corona contagion risk is at schools, kindergardens, offices and homes. And were able to show how to minimize the risk with proper ventilation.
The Climate Monitor: But there is a risk which is even more threatening than the current pandemic: the climate crisis. During the heavy floodings in Western Germany we published an elaborate storytelling about how the climate in Germany already changed. Since then we offer monthly updated analysis of the German weather and how it compares to the longterm average in our climate dashboard at sz.de/klima in detail for every single place in Germany.
The World on the Brink: In November, new emissions targets were adopted at COP26 in Glasgow. But these bare figures and often imprecise pledges are not easy to understand. In “The World on the Brink” we therefore described in concrete terms what it means for the world’s climate if the pledges are not met, only partially met or met in full.
Federal Elections – The Analysis: Back to the present. As the world may have noticed, the year 2021 marked neither the end of the pandemic nor of climate change, but it did mark the end of Angela Merkel. Olaf Scholz was elected as the new German Chancellor. Again, we used a new technique: natural language generation (NLG). With our automatically generated texts and graphics, we were able to provide our readers with a very detailed election analysis for each constituency shortly after the election.
Politics on Facebook, Distorted world: Much of the federal election campaign was conducted on social networks. To understand their influence on the elections, we teamed up with the US nonprofit newsroom The Markup. Together, we implemented their Facebook Inspector called Citizen Browser in Germany. Via this international cooperation, we were able to show how different Facebook looked like to people with different political attitudes.
The hatred grows: In 2021, the pandemic also spurred radicalization in Germany. Protests against the COVID restrictions escalated as protesters teamed up with players of the German Far Right. They mainly use Telegram, a platform that does not moderate or sanction hate speech. To monitor this threat, we scraped 12 million messages from possibly radical groups and channels. We built our own dictionary of more than 2000 words that indicate different aspects of hate speech. Using this, we were able to describe how the usage of hate speech not only increased within a year of Telegram messaging – but also how the words the people used shifted from demagogy to conspiracy fables.