The profile: Helena Bengtsson
The step between Swedish public service and a world-renowned newspaper might not be so big after all. Just ask Helena Bengtsson.
‘‘Journalism is journalism here, too. It's comforting to feel that,’’ says Bengtsson. ‘‘When you talk about it here you end up in the same discussion as you did at SVT.’’
In October of last year, Bengtsson left her job at SVT Pejl – the data journalism department of Swedish Television – to join a similar department at The Guardian in London.
Bengtsson was recruited by Aron Pilhofer, who she met while working at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. Pilhofer had recently left The New York Times to work for the British newspaper and wanted Bengtsson to join his team.
In recent years, data journalism has become one of the most popular trends in media. Successful data journalists have built a career on their knowledge of databases, spreadsheets and making sense out of raw data.
Data journalism has been a permanent fixture on the U.S. media scene for a long time and it’s becoming more and more popular in Europe as well. More than perhaps ever before media companies are running their own data driven journalism projects. Well-established actors on the data journalism scene are, for example, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog and online news outlet Vox. The Guardian is another of the well-known media outlets relying on a strong data journalism department.
Data journalism is a form of journalism where reporters and editors can tell a story by using other things than words. It can for example be an interactive graphic, a picture or a video.
Not a separate form of journalism
While there might be similarities between Sweden and the U.K., there are also differences in the way Bengtsson works.
‘‘I probably do some more advanced tasks and longer projects,’’ Bengtsson says on the phone from London. ‘‘We have a whole department for interactives, so I don’t have to think about the visual side of the story so much. I can focus on working with a reporter and figure out what we want to write about. At SVT, we took care of everything.’’
At the same time, Bengtsson wants people to stop looking at data journalism as a separate form of journalism. Instead, she wants it to be viewed as a method.
‘‘Data journalism has made it easier to do certain things, just as the telephone revolutionized journalism in terms that you could interview people over the phone,’’ Bengtsson says. ‘‘The journalism is the most important thing to me. If I have a journalistic problem I can use data technological methods to solve it, just as I learn interviewing techniques to solve other journalistic problems.’’
Started as a data consultant
Bengtsson’s road to one of the world’s most famous newspapers is far from straight.
She started as a data consultant. But Bengtsson wanted to be a journalist. After four years, she had enough work-life experience to apply, and be accepted, to one of Sweden’s most prestigious journalism schools, JMG in Gothenburg.
During her time at JMG, Bengtsson’s journalism career took off. She didn’t even finish her studies before she started working on the show Striptease on Swedish Television (Bengtsson has since completed her studies).
Bengtsson stayed with the public broadcaster for several years and worked on, among other things, the award winning investigative show, Uppdrag Granskning.
But last year, the dream job came knocking and Bengtsson couldn’t say no. In an interview with Resumé, Bengtsson says the British newspaper was the only place she could imagine herself working at besides SVT.
Bengtsson is one of a growing number of data journalists. But there’s still a notion journalists aren’t good at math and numbers and therefore cannot produce solid data journalism.
Bengtsson sees two misconceptions with this argument.
Number one: Data journalism is about so much more than numbers in an Excel spreadsheet.
‘‘Data journalism is about systemizing information. This is something we need to do in order to be more efficient in a world that demands just that,’’ says Bengtsson, who adds she thinks a journalist can be both a creative writer and a good data journalist.
Number two: The myth where journalists claim to suck at numbers is hard to kill, but can change.
‘‘Journalists are good at learning new things, so perhaps they can learn this as well,’’ says Bengtsson.
Learning new skills and adapt to changes in technology is often something required by students in journalism schools and people in the industry who wants to move up or simply stay in the field.
And knowing data journalism is one thing that can prove useful if you want a job in the industry, Bengtsson says.
‘‘This is the genre, even if I don’t like to call it one, in which people are getting hired in the world today,’’ Bengtsson says. ‘‘The combination of being able to use and understand computer programs together with other journalistic skills is employable.’’The GuardianData journalismHelena Bengtsson