TVN Newsroom Innovators | Data Reporting Lifts ABC O&Os In Election, Pandemic

ABC Owned Television Stations’ relatively new data journalism unit, headed by John Kelly, has quickly come into its own via the massive twin stories of the election and the pandemic. The team’s work has already impacted equity issues at the polls and made inroads with a younger audience that Kelly says “particularly values evidence, hard facts and data that they can easily consume and share with one another.”

As a pandemic spread across the United States during this presidential election year, many citizens decided to take advantage of early voting to avoid large crowds at polls on Nov. 3. When the residents of Huntington Park, Calif., went to the polls for March primaries, however, many stood in line for up to four hours.

This occurred because the area’s 22,000 registered voters, most of whom are people of color and low-income workers, were being served by only two poll locations. Meanwhile, in close-by Beverly Hills, nine polling locations served a near identically-sized electorate, but one that’s 82% White and of far higher economic status.

The Los Angeles market’s ABC Owned Station, KABC, caught wind of the scenario and deployed a reporter who worked in tandem with a data journalist, put in place one year prior as part of a company-wide initiative to beef up the data in its storytelling.

After KABC aired its segment on the poll problems in Huntington Park, which were characterized by one source as “voter suppression,” and magnified by data visualization graphics, local officials doubled poll locations in the city. It was precisely the kind of outcome the station group’s data journalism team — with a data scientist in eight different markets and another employed by national ABC News — hopes for when engaging in their work.

“We cover big cities with amazingly complex problems specifically around racial equity,” says John Kelly, director of data journalism for ABC Owned Stations. Viewers can expect the team to dive into relevant issues like education, policing, finances, the wealth gap and more topics, he says. The squad’s focus, Kelly adds, is also on “how we can use data to shine a bright light on those issues and help bring the community together around talking about them, armed with facts.”

John Kelly

ABC hired Kelly after he’d forged a similar data journalism team for Gannett. The station group got the ball rolling on the effort after scoring a grant in 2019 from the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge. In a partnership with the California Open Data Exchange, ABC newsrooms in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno, Calif., leveraged the government data, as well as more data from private sources, into a number of data-driven stories. The data journalism team has since grown from there.


After sitting in on their station’s news team meetings, ABC’s data journalists concoct ways to contribute to stories their reporter colleagues are crafting. Workflow runs in the opposite direction, too, with the data journalist cadre collectively mining data on its own, sending alerts to ABC stations about potential stories that can be built from it.

Most of the data-driven stories have ranged from local to hyperlocal, which Kelly says presents opportunities in both a business sense and for public service.

“There are just so many viewers in our markets that could benefit from strong, fact-based watchdog journalism … that maybe isn’t being done as much anymore as the news industry has contracted, particularly on the print side,” he says.

The goal of any newsgroup is to reach more viewers, Kelly says, “and try and help them.” He believes this approach can attract viewers in communities that ABC hasn’t reached before, and those in younger demographics, so vital to brand sustainability, as well.

“That younger audience particularly values evidence, hard facts and data that they can easily consume and share with one another to talk about these kinds of issues, particularly justice issues,” Kelly says. “The more that we can provide those things, the more we’re helping build more media-literate, media-engaged communities.”

There have been data-driven stories that, with a prospective national relevance, have ascended to ABC News broadcasts. With increasing frequency, Kelly says, his corps is also collaborating with other newsgroups under the Disney umbrella, including ESPN and FiveThirtyEight.

Other station groups have implemented more data journalism into their storytelling of late, which Kelly recognizes and applauds. Still, he believes ABC’s approach to data journalism, which he describes as “unique” and “methodical,” is on a level all its own.

“We’re also doing data journalism training,” Kelly says. “We’ve held boot camps where we’re teaching other reporters and producers to use these tools.” Across ABC Owned Stations, he says there are now more than 20 people who can “adeptly grab a data set, analyze it and identify a storyline.

“Our idea here is really making this a capability that is at the core of the newsgathering process,” Kelly says. “I don’t think there’s any station group in the country that has that stoked of a data team and is doing data journalism with the frequency and depth that we’re doing.”

His team’s growth and influence would not have been possible without support from above, which has been plentiful.

Anna Robertson

“Our approach to data journalism enables us to better inform, reflect and serve our communities by providing important context and relevance around the issues that affect our viewers’ lives every day,” says Anna Robertson, VP of content and partner innovation for ABC Owned Stations. “This work produces exclusive, agenda-setting news coverage, and it creates real action and impact in our communities.”

ABC’s data journalists got their feet wet during a turbulent year, covering the COVID-19 outbreak and the campaign season. With the election (essentially) behind the nation, Kelly’s team will return most of its focus to the coronavirus in the new year.

“We’ll be looking at what is the equity and the planning and the logistics around how communities and states distribute the vaccine,” he says.

Kelly observes that the figures viewers consume in connection to pandemic reporting are so large that they’re difficult to truly grasp. Therefore, Kelly says another of his team’s missions is “improving the visual way that we show people those numbers.” That way, viewers can make fast assessments of whether or not things are improving locally and what safety precautions they should take based on that reported information.

ABC Owned Television Stations’ relatively new data journalism unit, headed by John Kelly, has quickly come into its own via the massive twin stories of the election and the pandemic. Click To Tweet

With COVID-19 raging once more, ABC having the data journalism wherewithal to help viewers make those assessments couldn’t have come at a more essential time.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect that voters were waiting in line for four hours for the March primary, not in October.

This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles will examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.

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