How the CBC’s Justin McElroy has leveraged a data-based approach to journalism to keep audiences engaged during Covid
By Kristian Trevena
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon and Justin McElroy has just gotten an email. He has to put a short pause on our Zoom interview to do the thing that he has been doing for nearly 11 months: update Covid-19 numbers for British Columbians on Twitter and send that info back to the CBC newsroom.
As he looks ahead to his second monitor above his computer, he quickly reads through information and explains the process to me. Every weekday, he receives a government email filled with the Covid statistics for the day. These numbers include daily case totals, deaths, hospitalizations, and, more recently, the number of people who have been vaccinated. As soon as this information is received, McElroy begins to punch them into a large spreadsheet.
The information then gets put into several charts, and sent back to the newsroom for use in other Covid-related stories. The entire process typically takes about 20 minutes. “I always want to see what’s new and noteworthy right now, where are the trends continuing,” says McElroy. ”You never want to put too much information—you need to try and contextualize it.”
Since the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization in March of 2020, people have been glued to the news. The need to understand something so unprecedented led many people to reporters like McElroy, who uses a data-based approach to report and share his stories, much to the delight of his 40,000-plus Twitter followers.
The day we talk is, by all accounts, a fairly average day for Covid statistics. But even the average days cause a big response on social media, he notes. “Some people may say ‘Good, things aren’t getting worse,’ but other people are going to be sad, wondering why we’re not getting the numbers down. So much of this is people’s psychology and expectations.”
Before the pandemic struck, McElroy had a cubicle in the CBC Vancouver studio on Hamilton Street that he worked in each day. He’s had to adjust to his new workspace, in his downtown Vancouver condo.
McElroy’s home office is equipped with equipment to make working from home easier, including a ring light for broadcast hits. It also features a large calendar, with a set det displayed in large letters: March 11.
The calendar used to sit on his desk in the CBC newsroom; March 11 was the day last year when McElroy was sent home, as a precaution due to a possible contact with Covid. “I thought, OK, I’ll be away for a couple of weeks. And it’s been 11 months now,” he says.
McElroy, 34, was born in Victoria and had originally planned to pursue an undergraduate in political science at the University of British Columbia. But he found the program boring and instead, decided to pursue journalism. McElroy says his interest in journalism piqued after getting some experience writing for The Ubyssey, UBC’s student newspaper. “I entered the newsroom and I fell in love with it. I thought, ‘this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing’.” he says.
After doing an internship at The Province newspaper, McElroy became an overnight writer for Global BC, followed by a stint as a web writer for Global. He joined CBC in 2016.
Along with providing the daily Covid statistics, McElroy also does longer-form stories for CBC about the pandemic, talking to health officials, psychologists, or other figures who can help make sense of the numbers as a whole. But prior to Covid, McElroy was better known for bringing his analytical skills to the municipal affairs beat.
It was McElroy who pitched the idea of a municipal politics beat to the CBC, after getting some experience covering political news at Global. He was given the chance to try out the concept for four months in 2017, and permanently given the beat in 2019. He still writes regularly on municipal politics and makes a regular appearance on CBC Radio’s The Early Edition each Wednesday morning—though Covid has consumed most of his recent reporting.
Treena Wood, news director for CBC British Columbia, says that it is McElroy’s passion and dedication to municipal reporting that makes him a standout in the newsroom.
“He really believes in how important municipal affairs is to our audience, and because of that, he finds a way to make the most mundane subject matter incredibly interesting— because he finds it incredibly interesting,” Wood says.
One of the things that allows McElroy to stand out as a reporter is his dedication to some of the simplest community stories, such as ranking every park in Vancouver— which also turn out to be most compelling for readers.
McElroy’s municipal reporting covers everything from deeper and more serious stories, to lighter and quirkier pieces. One of the more memorable examples, McElroy recalls, was his 2020 story of an attempted pet pigeon ban in North Vancouver, which later turned out to be instigated by a city councillor who lived next to the only pigeon owner in the city.
It’s this type of storytelling that makes journalists like Frances Bula, a municipal affairs journalist who contributes to The Globe and Mail, admire McElroy’s reporting.
“When you see stories like that, they seem so surface level but it really is an abuse of power,” says Bula about the pigeon ban story. “He’s incredibly dedicated to covering suburban council stories, and bringing attention to stories that may have only gotten coverage in local papers.”
When Covid struck and local council meetings were cancelled, McElroy began to look for things to do that would both provide value to the public and allow him to use his skills as a reporter. That is when he began creating charts about where B.C. stood in the pandemic—and by early 2021, reporting on the pandemic accounted for 60 to 70 percent of his reporting.
Data journalism is not a new concept, but it is one that newsrooms, like the CBC’s, have been focusing more attention on in recent years, says Treena Wood. She adds that McElroy’s skills of taking large amounts of data and translating it into digestible titbits and thoughtful analysis is what makes his reporting such a standout: “He’s able to take these complex data sets and make them into something that is understandable for the audience.”
Alex Migdal, a social editor and reporter for CBC British Columbia, says that data journalism can be a challenging concept, and it’s a skill that not many journalists have.
“Being able to understand data, and build charts and graphs in a way your audience can understand, that takes a level of skill and practice,” says Migdal. “Justin has really illustrated the value of data in a time of Covid.”
“I would hope that his work is actually a case study for journalists and future journalists that if you want to get into journalism,” he adds. “This is the kind of stuff that people are turning to and people really need to see.”
Looking back at the year that was, McElroy says that being able to provide British Columbians with important coverage of the pandemic has been a challenging learning experience for him.
“I wouldn’t use a word like memorable, especially when it involves policies of life and death,” he says. “But I’m grateful I have the opportunity to help people make smart and informed decisions to keep them safe.”
He says that, whatever beat he’s covering, his goal is the same: “You try to rise to the moment and do your best to provide people with the information that (they need).” And despite the fact that he’s best known as “the numbers guy,” he tries to put a very human face to everything he does.
“People are feeling a lot of things right now, and if you can give light to that and say ‘what you’re feeling, other people are feeling too’—it’s important, and it makes people trust the reporter more when they know that there is an actual human face behind this.”