Hands-on training empowers journalists in Pakistan for data-driven reporting

The AidData-led training responds to the media’s need for better data and evidence to understand how foreign lending and government economic policies are impacting citizens.

January 30, 2023
Alex Wooley
Trainers and organizing staff huddle on the final day before student-journalists’ capstone project presentations. Photo by AidData, all rights reserved.

Trainers and organizing staff huddle on the final day before student-journalists’ capstone project presentations. Photo by AidData, all rights reserved.

In December, AidData’s Ammar A. Malik, Asad Sami and Alex Wooley co-led a week-long in-person Economics and Data Journalism training for 22 Pakistani professional journalists. The hands-on training—conducted in partnership with the state-of-the-art Center for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi—was designed to enhance the quality of data-informed economics reporting by Pakistan’s media. 

“Given the critical role of media in civil society, having better trained and informed journalists will in turn promote transparency and accountability, civic responsibility and citizen empowerment,” said Ammar Malik, Senior Research Scientist and Director of AidData’s Chinese Development Finance Program. “Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape, and policies are vigorously debated. But both policymakers and journalists freely admit they do not always have solid, independent data on which to base their views. Decisions on economic policies are often made without the full awareness or consideration of all the data and facts. The media is hampered further by not always having access to the data, not knowing where to find and interpret it, or lacking the training to make sense of it all.”

Journalists were drawn from all four provinces of the country and the federal Islamabad Capital Territory, and from print, broadcast, and online media. Each student-journalist worked on a capstone data journalism story, to be published by their outlets in subsequent weeks. The final project topics offered a window into the underreported stories Pakistan’s journalists are most concerned about. These include climate, energy, gender, health, debt transparency and sustainability, and tracking the impacts of and the government’s response to the catastrophic floods that battered the country in 2022. Each story was explored through an economics or finance lens making use of publicly available datasets, the access and refinement of which was facilitated by trainers during working sessions.

A student-journalist gives her final presentation as part of the training. Photo by AidData, all rights reserved.

AidData worked with CEJ to assemble a team of local guest trainers with different areas of expertise, including prominent economic journalists, former government officials, and private sector executives engaged in the banking and finance sector. In addition to the AidData trio, trainers included Amber Rahim Shamsi, who also serves as Director of the CEJ. Shamsi is an award-winning multimedia journalist, political commentator, and free speech advocate, with wide-ranging experience in television, radio, online and the print media. 

“Debt and development have become mainstream talking points in the Pakistani media due to economic crises and recessions in the last few years,” said Shamsi. “However, few journalists—including those on the business and economic beats —have the theoretical grounding or the research and analytical skills to be able to explain these issues to the public. AidData’s knowledge and expertise in extracting, monitoring and analyzing China’s aid and development lending was key to developing a training module for journalists looking to expand their skills. The CEJ worked closely with top Pakistani economics journalist Shahbaz Rana and AidData to adapt academic education to a thorough skills-based training workshop. The tremendous feedback that CEJ received after the workshop indicates the need for more capacity-building training adapted to both demand and needs.”

Integral to the team was Shahbaz Rana, Economic Correspondent for The Express Tribune and a prominent media personality. “The Pakistani media needs to be equipped with modern-day journalism tools to remain relevant and for professional survival,” said Rana. “The Data Journalism workshop provided a glimpse of the future of journalism to the participants. Having such events in future will also help the country’s journalists to build their careers. The AidData-CEJ collaboration is well-suited to assist with this, given the scarcity of such professional opportunities currently.” 

The trainers worked with students in a full group setting, as well as in smaller units and one-on-one. 

“Amid the unfavorable prevailing macroeconomic conditions in Pakistan, economic reporters were especially educated on the realm of external finance and debt crises, including equipping them to analyze debt flows from major databases and examine complicated loan data and terms using standardized metrics and objective benchmarks,” said AidData Program Manager Asad Sami. “With this knowledge, journalists can better report on the macroeconomy and the costs and benefits of big infrastructure projects.“

AidData plans to deliver more in-person training of this kind to journalists in other countries. There is evidence of demand: AidData’s experts and data-driven flagship reports are covered or cited in some 1,000 media stories a year and it maintains a network of close to 500 journalists worldwide, while its datasets and tools like GeoQuery are downloaded and used by thousands each year. 

“But there is a gap, between the elite media outlets which have teams of journalists with deep expertise in economics and finance, data science and visualization working on a single story—and the dedicated but understaffed media at many important outlets in developing countries, who feel a strong responsibility to cover economic stories but lack the training or elements of  subject matter knowledge,” said Alex Wooley, Director of Partnerships and Communications at AidData. 

“For many journalists, regardless of what country they work in, economics is an intimidating topic, virtually a dark art, matched only by the reporter’s trepidation at using large and complex datasets,” explained Wooley. “Yet, in developing countries we increasingly see a thirst from the media to better understand through data and evidence how their economies function, how the government decides and allocates scarce resources, the role of foreign and international lenders and donors, and the impact of all of these factors and actors on citizens. At AidData, we’ve learned you can only help reporters so much through email or video calls. There is no substitute for in-person outreach and skills-building, taking the data and learning directly where it can do the most good.”

Sponsor hands out certificates to the learners at the close of the week-long training. Photo by AidData, all rights reserved.

Students in Karachi learned how to build a data journalism story from initial concept to final report; how to find, access, and analyze large economic and finance datasets; how to use geospatial or location-based data; and how to read, interpret, and benchmark terms and conditions in loan and grant contracts. 

“We were fortunate to have an inspired, passionate cohort of students, many of whom were balancing their classwork with their day jobs, completing shifts at their media houses before or after spending the entire day with us learning,” said Malik.

The training was supported by the U.S. Consulate in Karachi.

The training in Pakistan was prompted in part by the September 2021 release of a flagship AidData report—Banking on the Belt and Road—and massive new dataset capturing more than 13,000 Chinese development finance projects in over 150 countries worldwide. In Pakistan, the launch prompted dozens of print, television, radio and online news stories and commentaries, focused mainly on AidData’s data and analysis of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Senior government officials responded through press conferences and other means. A month later, Malik traveled to Pakistan to brief cabinet-level officials and their advisors from several ministries and agencies, and to give keynotes at leading think-tanks. Similar flurries of press coverage occurred in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Laos, Indonesia and elsewhere, focused on the terms, implications and impacts of major infrastructure projects in those countries.

Alex Wooley is AidData's Director of Partnerships and Communications.