This is the story behind the story that entrepreneur/geoscientist Laurie Weston wrote on what she called the Alberta Deathscape.
It should help some readers better understand the difference between BIG Media’s truth-focused approach and what we are familiar with in mainstream media reports.
This is a story that earlier in my career as a journalist, I would have taken on myself. As mainstream media reporters and editors tend to do, I would have looked at the data from a relatively uneducated perspective, plucked out the pieces that would garner the most attention, come up with a shocking headline and lead, then blasted out a story to be read by many thousands.
I would not have been lying to anyone, but I would have been guilty of spinning the data to suit my agenda of maximizing readership so that my bosses and my ego would be satisfied.
However, I have learned that we trained journalists are not necessarily the best candidates to produce articles on the most important issues. Sometimes, it makes more sense to have an accomplished scientist, particularly with expertise in data, tell the tale.
So, when we decided to write a story on causes of death and where on the spectrum COVID-19 stands, I was glad to have my business partner Laurie Weston handle the assignment.
Laurie is an experienced scientist who runs geophysics company Sound QI, which she founded 14 years ago. She is an expert in analysing and interpreting data. She went to lengths that few would be inclined to go – and fewer even capable of going – in order to add depth and accuracy to the story.
First, Laurie sought to work with a batch of data that had integrity. She chose to focus on the Canadian province of Alberta. It is her home province, and she was confident in the relatively consistent standards and procedures followed by those who compile the data for and with the provincial government. That said, Laurie did something else that is rare in media circles; she acknowledged in the article potential gaps or shortcomings in the data, as well as in the way she presented the data.
Laurie proceeded to download all relevant death data from Alberta and Canadian government sites. Her next step is critical but routinely skipped in North American newsrooms; she cleaned the data. And cleaned. And cleaned. It is no exaggeration to say that she spent more time fixing flaws in the data for the Alberta Deathscape story than I ever spent researching and writing an entire article.
Now, that does not mean the data was unreliable. On the contrary, Laurie was impressed with the work of the government agencies in compiling the information. However, there are little glitches that must be addressed to ensure the integrity of the data. For example, there were four separate spellings of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, therefore, four separate classifications for one category. Data scientists are typically not big fans of inconsistent hyphens and apostrophes.
Assembling the data in an ideal format for presentation was another huge task. Laurie did the data assembly and creation of charts herself. Because the datasets were so large, she needed to implement some automated scripts to reformat the tables for efficient graphing. She admits that she had to watch some expert videos to make sure she got these right.
All told, Laurie spent about 60 hours in evenings and weekends preparing the data before writing a single word of the story. On one occasion, she even turned down a chance to join me for a trip to an ice-cream shop. Data over ice cream?! That is a level of commitment to which I simply will not go.
When she finally got to writing, Laurie did not cherry-pick data to prove a theory or to shock readers; she interpreted the data from a fact-based, logical perspective. I hope you agree that the truth and accurate data are anything but boring, and that digesting the data is enlightening and gratifying. Who knew that roughly 40% of deaths among men age 20-60 are from accidents or suicide?
Death is not the cheeriest of topics, but knowledge is empowering.
Now that you have a picture of the work that went into it, please enjoy Laurie’s fascinating piece on the Alberta Deathscape, and let us know if you appreciate the difference.