Pamela Duncan

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: The Guardian

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

2020 will be remembered as the year our lives were turned upside down. No one was prepared. Everything was in flux. 

Amidst the chaos, data journalists, the Guardian data team among them, proved their mettle. 2020 was the year that data journalists became “the rockstars of the news business” according to BBC radio’s The Media Show. It was the year that brought data to the fore as a key pillar of facts-based journalism in the minds of the public. 

The Guardian data projects team has always been involved the analysis of existing or newly published data. But the role also allowed us to innovate: our mainstay was a creative process involving merging, scraping and creating datasets from previously unstructured data. 

In 2020, as internal communication became harder, deadlines were shortened, the competing copy was formidable and the public displayed an understanding and expectation only previously matched by that of our editors. 

Although always an aspect of the role, it became increasingly important for data journalists to be defenders of the data, especially in a time where mistakes gave fuel to those who claimed Covid deaths were being exaggerated. 

Very early on we discovered and highlighted holes in the data, for example, the government’s early exclusion of deaths occuring in care homes.

We counted the dead and explained why that wasn’t an easy thing to do. We questioned the data; we spotted the gaps. We reacted to and drew attention to government data failings, we reported on the very real life implications of data errors and omissions. 

A year on, as we are still feeling the effects of Covid, lockdown and the losses they brought about, both personally and economically, data journalists remain a key in documenting and making sense of the pandemic.

Description of portfolio:

I work for one of the largest media organisations in the UK and one of its most trusted. I am one of a three-woman team – along with data editor Caelainn Barr and data journalist Niamh McIntyre – who are embedded at the heart of the Guardian newsroom.

I make this submission to the Sigma data awards on the back of 10 months of non-stop data work on the impact of the Covid pandemic.

The 10 news stories I have chosen for this submission are representative of a period in which I have become an in-house expert in UK coronavirus cases, hospitaliations, vaccinations numbers and most importantly, deaths. 

At the time of writing (1 February, 2021), I had accumulated 401 bylines in my five-and-a-quarter years at the Guardian.  Two-in-five (39%) of these were written since my first Covid-related byline on 17 March 2020. Of the 155 news, features and live blog bylines I have had since that date, 97% were Covid-related. 

I feel that my work in 2020 improved the understanding and importance of data in what has been an unprecedented period. 

I broke a number of stories, such as revealing that the true April death toll in the United Kingdom was as high as 1,445 deaths in just one day, far higher than the contemporaneous figures published by the government, as well as highlighting the number of excess deaths occurring in private households as the public shied away from, or were unable to access, health appointments. 

I developed a methodology for the Guardian that combines the statistical agencies’ death count (which is more robust but is published at a time lag) with the government’s figure (which, for the purposes of speed, only counts those deaths within 28 days of a positive test and is, therefore, an undercount) to allow us to calculate the most complete and up-to-date death toll possible.

A key aspect of my work as a data journalist has been the continued collaboration with my direct colleagues on the Guardian data projects team, the visuals team, as well as news reporters and correspondents. I have long felt strongly that collaborations make combined journalistic output stronger: 2020 cemented this. 

My journalism is underpinned by detailed interrogation of the datasets behind the headline. As well as using data to inform the public, I have written repeatedly about data gaps and failures which, either through accident or design, misled rather than enlightened the public. 

Working with the visuals team I was able to communicate complex data sets to our readers, both online and in print, enabling readers to interrogate this data in an accessible and entertaining way. 

Along with visual projects editor Lydia McMullan and others on the visuals team, I co-authored two innovative and accessible features on Covid: one on the mental impact of the pandemic and lockdown on our mental health; the other a timeline juxtaposing the UK governments’ U-turns and mixed messages with an ever-increasing death toll (please note that this was story was updated in February 2021: the original time stamp is, however, within the period covered by the Sigma awards). 

I also collaborated with so many more people who ordinarily work outside the London office making new connections as the pandemic reorientated data’s role in the newsroom. 

I frequently contributed to our live blog: an immediate way of breaking news to an engaged audience.

My contribution to telling the story of the pandemic as it unfolded was significant, both in terms of helping readers understand the rapidly changing health environment around them and, at a political level, holding the government and public bodies to account.

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