This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the 2017-18 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.
Joshua Hatch is an explorer of the unknown. A veteran data journalist, he’s accustomed to uncovering insightful — and often picturesque — stories from the murky depths of seemingly unintelligible information.
A data journalist’s job is to convert raw numbers and facts into stories told through graphs, charts, pictures, and diagrams. Equal parts science, art, and journalism, the process can seem obscure to anyone who has never done it. But Hatch is quick to demystify. It is, he says, little more than the application of basic journalism skills to numerical data.
“There’s nothing special about data in terms of it being more accurate, more real, or more truthful,” he explains; it can be “as flawed and capricious as any other journalistic raw material.”
Hatch’s career in data journalism began, at least in part, by chance.
“When I graduated college, the internet was just beginning to take hold,” he says. “Being young and being computer-savvy and -literate, I kept getting jobs that pulled me towards online news.”
In 2005, friends encouraged him to apply for an opening as a multimedia producer at USA Today, long known for its emphasis on colorful information graphics. After he got the job, he watched a colleague working with the multimedia platform Flash, “and I very quickly saw the power of data storytelling. … The light clicked right away. It was like, ‘Oh wow! This collection of numbers can be represented in this way!’ And that’s powerful.”
Today, as assistant managing editor for data and interactives at The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Chronicle of Philanthropy (and immediate past president of the Online News Association), Hatch has taken many a data dive with colleagues and students.
So when he received a Knight Science Journalism fellowship, he was eager to explore exciting new paths, beginning with what he thinks is “the critical issue of our age”: the delicate balance between humanity’s energy needs and the world’s environmental health. For example, he asks, “How do we power a world that is demanding more and more and more energy, and do it in a way that allows us to continue inhabiting this planet?” he muses.
From there, his mind leaps to the stars: “Probably the greatest science story in history is finding life outside of Earth. I honestly believe it’s only a matter of time.”
And then he comes right back down, to inner space — to genomes and human biological engineering.
“The other biggest science story of our generation [is] genetics and engineering biology,” he says. “That’s probably the next human-driven discovery.”
But above all else, Hatch is eager to tell good science stories.
“We’re in an era where helping people understand science and science stories is critically important, and in online journalism we have all these storytelling tools,” he says.
“What’s the best way to tell a story? Are there things we can learn about how to tell a story that helps people understand what we’re trying to tell them? … That’s sort of the project I’m working on.”