Going Deeper on Positive Deviants

For the basics on using positive deviants to find stories, see Section 1 “Finding solutions ideas”.

Despite the emphasis on data journalism in the last few years, some journalists still shy away from large datasets. And when journalists do turn to data, it’s often to investigate a negative outlier. Data usually informs journalistic inquiries like: What city has the worst crime rate? Where is governance the weakest? Where are racial and economic inequalities the greatest?

We suggest a different way for journalists to use data — exploring positive deviants, or slices of a dataset that get at the best performers or most-improved. For example: Which hospital in Texas has the lowest infection rate? In which state is recidivism the lowest? What country has the highest participation of women in government?

A positive deviant is a signal that something newsworthy could be happening. It’s the journalist’s job to get the story behind the positive deviant — and in so doing, uncover information that could be valuable for people everywhere. Perhaps the Texas hospital found a way to encourage nurses to speak up when doctors fail to wash their hands. Maybe state prison authorities began providing mental- health services and drug treatment to recently released prisoners. Those are important stories. (That being said, a positive deviant could also signify nothing. It could be a quirk in the data, a function of demographics, or an inaccurate measurement. As we said, it’s the journalist’s job to find out!)

Positive deviant journalism works backwards from data outcomes. Some journalists hesitate to attempt solutions journalism because they fear being labeled advocates or PR representatives. But with positive deviant journalism, the data will guide you to a story — and therefore will eliminate any confusion with advocacy.

Next time you look at a dataset, here are a few ways to consider slicing it to find a noteworthy positive deviant. This table is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to spur your imagination.

Data SliceExample 
Comparison to peersWhich cities/countries have an effective response to the same problem, and how?
Change over timeWhich cities/states have improved on their own records, over time?
By method/best practiceWho’s had interesting results in implementing a solution?
By subgroupWhich communities have most improved their infrastructure linked to solutions?
By costWho’s reduced prices as a solution/part of a solution?
By coverageWhich city/state/council has had success with specific policies?
By disparityWho’s reduced inequality in marginalised communities?