Data visualization and the future of journalism

Infographics are not new to the journalism industry; what is new, however, are the emerging technologies that allow static infographics to become dynamic infographics, for a new realm of information visualization. In 2010 Anthony Calabrese, a leading technology blogger, predicted that “data visualization” is the future of online journalism. Defining “data visualization” as “the visual representation of information served up with a healthy dose of innovation and creativity,” Calabrese refers to it as a “new form of visual communication for the 21st century.”

Digital technologies allow audiences to experience information in a way that isn’t possible in print; in a digital environment, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience. As such, I agree with Calabrese that data visualization may be the future (and thus the savior) of journalism.

But there are three key elements:

1) Media producers must fully embrace the capabilities of digital technologies in presenting information to audiences. A static bar chart online is going to be just as dull as a static bar chart in print. As Calabrese wrote, data visualization must be innovative and creative. A prime example is this stunning data visualization project on the vastness of space (“If the moon were only 1 pixel”).

But projects like this take time and they take resources. In a journalism industry that is strained for both time and money, digital journalism will continue to be print-based material shuffled to the web. Media organizations must be willing to devote resources to developing innovative and creative data visualization projects.

2) Data visualization guru Edward Tufte argues that a key criterion for successful work is the inclusion and transference of emotion. As visual communicators, we tend to overlook infographics and focus on photographs as the leading visual source for emotion.  But truly engaging data visualization can bring audiences to their knees. Tufte argues that Charles Minard’s infographic of Napoleon’s fateful 1812 march to Moscow is powerful because it “tells a rich, coherent story.” Minard created a static graphic that makes us mourn for the decimation of 400,000 troops.

The Washington Post is one of the leaders in data visualization; their latest project shows why. Richard Johnson and Ben Chartoff have created a haunting data visualization project that brings real understating to the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The graphic allows audiences to engage with the information and literally bring them to the “depth of the problem.” As the audience scrolls down the graphic, the tension mounts and the horror intensifies. This graphic could be printed; it would provide information and understanding. But, in print, it is limited. The audience can’t engage. It is that digital act of scrolling deeper and deeper that draws the audience in and makes them yearn for it to end. It forces us to concede the fate of those 239 people on board. It forces us to face human mortality.

It is critical to note that successful data visualization projects don’t have to be complicated to be successful. The WA Post graphic isn’t complicated; it’s simply brilliant.

3) Finally, as journalism educators, we must find new ways to train and challenge our students. We must force them to think critically and to think creatively. We must encourage them to take an array of courses, from philosophy to ethics to history to computer science. We must encourage them to embrace diversity and to challenge norms. We must encourage them to care.

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3 responses to “Data visualization and the future of journalism

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