Country/area: Malaysia

Organisation: STAR MEDIA GROUP

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

My name is Razak Ahmad, and I’m a data journalist with The Star, a Malaysian news media organisation.

As a News Editor I coordinate a small team that creates data-driven and visual stories for The Star Online (thestar.com.my).

Most of the content my team creates appear in StarPlus (https://www.thestar.com.my/starplus) which is a special section in the Star Online website that highlights data-driven, visual and interactive content.

The Star Online was launched on June 23, 1995 and is Malaysia’s first news website.

As the digital companion to The Star newspaper, The Star Online is part of a portfolio that offers content through print, The Star ePaper and a mobile app.

The website was recognised in 2014 as one of the best in Asia by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

I have been a journalist for 22 years, and have worked in another Malaysian newspaper and as a Reuters correspondent for the Malaysia bureau prior to joining The Star.

About a year and a half ago, I proposed to my boss to introduce data journalism and set up a unit that will spearhead the creation of data-driven content.

The aim is to better engage a changing news audience that is moving away from print and add value to our paywall customers.

Star Plus, which was the result, has been up for about a year. Page views, engagement time and other measurements for the data-driven content we produce have been unexpectedly strong and positive.

As a result, data-driven content is now one of the priorities for The Star. For this year we plan to actively expand our team, capabilities and skills and inject data-driven content into other sections of the news operations as well.

I am self-taught in data journalist and still have much to learn, but this has been an exciting journey.

All the stories submitted here have received particularly strong reader responses and engagement.

I hope that by entering our work in The Sigma Awards my team and organisation can hopefully receive encouragement and recognition of our efforts to learn and create better data-driven content.

Thank you.

Description of portfolio:

The Star Media Group’s portfolio has four stories: 1. Predicting the Next Pandemic. This is a story about the work of PREDICT – an international pandemic early warning project. Scientests on the programme have been testing people and animals in countries including Malaysia for the past 10 years in search of zoonotic viruses that potentially pose a threat to people and livestock. I proposed the story to highlight their work in Malaysia so they can get better support from Malaysian authorities and organisations at a time when their work was being derided by the Trump adminstration (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/03/trump-scrapped-pandemic-early-warning-program-system-before-coronavirus) The story also highlights the importance of protecting Malaysia’s endangered bats amid negative publicity following news that the animals may be carriers of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. The biggest challenge was finding the best way to analyse the large amount of raw data relating to the specimens tested and to visualise what we found from the data in a way that is engaging for readers. The biggest impact – judging from reader comments – was in highlighting the importance of environmental and wildlife conservation and showing how our failure to do this can result in something as catastrophic as a pandemic. 2. Turning the tide on Malaysia’s third Covid-19 wave. This is a data-driven visual story that explains how the Covid-19 pandemic developed in Malaysia over 10 months. I proposed this story at a time when Malaysia was seeing a spike in cases from a third wave of infections but public awareness of what was happening was still no The biggest challenge was building a dataset that covers the 10 month period of the pandemic. Malaysia’s health authorities releases data daily, but the data released is relatively limited in scope. The story which was also one of the most popular data stories for 2020 gave readers an overview of what’s been happening in Malaysia which I feel is still something that is in short supply as most news media organisations are focused on just the daily reporting of Covid-19. 3. How effective was your MP in Parliament? Find out here People in many countries including Malaysia often complain that their elected representatives don’t perform. I proposed this story because I felt that in Malaysia, parliament reporting was still stuck to merely repeating arguments by MPs. I felt that The Star should do a data story that objectively measures how well – or not – our MPs are doing in Parliament. The story uses the Hansard from a recently completed Parliament meeting as the data source to find out what the MPs talk about and how they were. The biggest was the amount of words that we had to analyse, and figuring out how best to analyse the Hansard. One problem which we found was that quite a number of MPs from both sides – instead of arguing substantive issues – resorted to using unparliamentary and offensive language and words. We highlighted this issue in the story among others. Since then, I have not heard any more widespread complaints of MPs using unparliamentary language, which I like to think is partly to the impact that the story had! 4. Here’s how Macau scammers conned Malaysians out of RM256mil this year Phone scams are a big problem in Malaysia, with more than US$60 million in losses recorded for the 11 months of 2020 alone. However, media coverage is mostly just on individual cases and rarely looks at a wider perspective. We used media reports as a data source to find out how the scammers operate in order to raise awareness and help readers protect

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