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The signal and the story

What I want is to understand why things are the way they are.

That’s a philosophical position, not a job description.

But I need a job.

That’s fine. Lots of people start out with a broad desire to understand something deeply, and find out what that thing is later. I haven’t done that. Because of the sheer amount of information that we have access to, I have no excuse to not know everything about everything. Aside from being human, of course.

So I picked journalism, where you get to tell stories to whoever will listen. What did I want to talk about? Mostly things that were interesting. Preferably ones people couldn’t see- things that were either too small or too big.

I went to college in Boston, so I tried to find out what was happening there: Why was my apartment in Chinatown so expensive when the area was one of the most unsafe in the city? (answer: gentrification and there was a homeless shelter a block away). How did Brazilians end up becoming one of the largest immigrant populations in the city? (because of a mining venture from a Brazilian company in the 1800s). What did bringing some of the sharpest minds in neuroscience together come up with? (lots of cool stuff).

But here I began to notice a pattern to the stories I found- they were all big stories that relied more on research than groundwork. They all tried to focus on patterns or trends rather than specific events. And they all tried to paint a bigger picture from a specific event.

This was slightly at odds with what we were taught in class- there, everything was about the story. And a story was nothing without characters, without a setting, without a plot. Trying to fit some of these patterns into stories was an interesting challenge, but it helped me understand why the narrative is so critical; it lets your reader care about things like demographic shifts or economic trends that just don’t connect normally.

At this point, I got an internship for the summer with The Hindu. For a while, I covered some pretty boring beats- traffic, crime (not as fun as it sounds), politics (exactly as fun as it sounds). I wanted to try writing something different, and focused on arts and culture. The most memorable thing I covered while writing for them was the Wacken metal festival (where I got to interview these guys). But my attempts to cover things like housing developments, demographic changes, and other big pictures never went through like I wanted.

And when I tried to look for reports on these topics, they weren’t really there. Or if they were, they were hidden away, incomplete, or hadn’t been updated in years. And here I finally understood the primary difference between my reporting in Boston and my reporting for The Hindu- In the US, there was research I could use, easily available and well explained.

And behind the research was data, and behind the data, truth. Or so I thought. But then I found out that even empirical modeling is highly sensitive to bias. Cognitive, inductive, statistical- there are many, many ways the signal can get lost in noise.

The solution to that, then, is to be as close to the signal as possible, which in this case means working with raw data. That’s what I want to do. I still want to tell stories about the things people can’t see- whether they’re too obscure or too large to be visible.

But I want to be as close to the signal as possible, and broadcast it as widely as possible.

This article was contributed by Aditya Tejas. Find out more about Aditya at http://goo.gl/GwdKk4

Cover image courtesy – Flickr user Davide F

This article was published by Maslowed.Me – a career portal

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