Data visualization as a sustaining value of journalism

Journalism is an industry of storytelling. Data visualizations can help us craft more effective stories. As I discuss in a previous post, data visualizations, or infographics, are not new to journalism; what is new, however, are the emerging technologies that allow static infographics to become dynamic infographics, for a new realm of information visualization.

The just published book, Data Journalism: Inside the Global Future, discusses advances in digital technologies that allow for data journalists “to find and tell stories in new and visually exciting ways.” The book is edited by Tom Felle, John Mair, and Damian Radcliffe.

dataviz-book-cover

I have authored a chapter in the book in which I argue that in an age of digital news and social media, data visualization can be a sustaining value of journalism. Data visualizations that are rooted in facts, effectively presented through the correct data tools and technologies, and make a connection with the audience can be a means to crafting better stories. But we must be willing to devote time and resources, both within the journalism industry and within our journalism classrooms. What follows is a brief synopsis of my chapter.

In an age of digital news and social media, the traditional elements of a news story–the who, what, when, and where–emerge quickly. And they emerge from a multitude of sources, both from traditional media sources and newly available information sources, such as news aggregators and citizen journalists. Journalism must continue to re-invent itself for the age of digital news and social media. One way this re-invention can happen is through data visualizations that enhance the storytelling function by allowing audiences to truly engage with the story.

Digital technologies allow audiences to experience information in a way that is not possible in print; in a digital environment, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience. Consider, for example, The Guardian’s interactive data map illustrating women’s global political rights. Rich in data, the visualization allows–and in fact encourages–audiences to create their own interactive information experience. Rather than being a cumbersome and laborious mountain of text, audiences can take great delight in seeking out and engaging with the data for a truly unique learning experience.

Data visualizations fall under the canopy of visual reporting, with the understanding that visuals are more than just aesthetic or decoration. Visual help us craft better stories. Visuals–photographs, graphics, videos, data visualizations–are information and thereby communication.

But there are necessary conditions for the journalism profession and for journalism educators to ensure that data visualizations enhance storytelling for real understanding to thus become a sustaining value of journalism.

First, the truth must always prevail. Bearing in mind the social responsibility theory of the press, journalism is a business of facts, and facts must always remain supreme in order for journalism to fulfill its function in a healthy democracy (Siebert, Peterson and Schramm, 1963; SPJ, 1996). Words can mislead, misrepresent, and lie. So can visuals, whether they are photographs, videos, or data visualizations. To ensure that data visualizations present the truth, journalists should understand content beyond the basic who, what, when, and where. Data visualizations can help to give content perspective, especially regarding the reporting of how and why. As an example, a data visualization could present data on climate change or gun violence, but if there is no connection to relative information or to cause and effect, the information could potentially be out of context or misrepresented and, thus, misunderstood.

With a thorough understanding of the facts, media producers must then decide which type of data visualization is most effective for the data and the intended intellectual task. All data visualization types are not created equal and they are not all interchangeable. Media producers must be meticulous in selecting the correct type of data visualization for the intellectual task of the communication. And they must use good moral judgment in ensuring that the visual presentation of the data sheds light on the facts of the story and does not craft a version of the story with a certain agenda.

Consider, as an example, this interactive data map from The New York Times that presents the story of the spread of drought across the United States. The data map effectively conveys the intellectual task of mapping the rise of drought across time and geographic location. Through updated data, longitudinal findings, locator information, and effective use of data labeling and color classification, the data maps clearly show audiences that drought conditions in the United States are becoming increasingly more severe and more widespread. This data visualization is rooted in facts and ethically and accurately crafts the story of drought.

Second, we must consider the inclusion and transference of emotion (Tufte, 1983). As visual journalists and scholars, we tend to overlook infographics and focus on photographs as the leading visual source for emotion. Certainly, photographs can be emotionally moving. But truly engaging data visualization can also bring audiences to their knees. As an example, The Washington Post created a haunting data visualization project that brings real understating to the presumed fate of the disappeared Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The data visualization is successful for multiple reasons, but its greatest success is in its audience involvement. 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 in print. But, in print, it is limited. The audience cannot engage. It is that digital act of scrolling deeper and deeper that draws in the audience and makes us 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. And it forces us to care.

Third, journalists, editors, and publishers 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 (2010) notes, data visualization must be innovative and creative. A prime example is the stunning data visualization project on the vastness of space, ‘If the Moon Were Only One Pixel.’ But successful data visualizations can take time and resources. In a journalism industry that is strained for both time and money, digital journalism too often continues 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. However, there are two critical caveats. First, media producers must be cautious to not fall prey to the lure of interactivity just for the sake of interactivity. There are times when a static bar chart may actually be the most effective way to present the content in question. Visualizations that utilize technology and interactivity must do so only when that digital experience will enhance the information value. Second, it is important to note that successful data visualization projects do not necessarily have to be expensive or complicated to be successful. The Washington Post data visualization on the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is not complicated; it is simply brilliant.

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. To do this, we must encourage them to take an array of courses, from philosophy to ethics to history to computer science to art. We must encourage them to embrace diversity and to challenge norms. We must encourage them to care. While writing, design, and critical thinking will always be foundational, we must also train students to think across platforms. And they must understand the content and the technologies to make informed decisions about the most effective way to craft a story given the topic, audience, and medium.

References

Calabrese, Anthony (2010) ‘Six stunning projects that show the power of data visualisation,’ 5 October. Available online at http://mediashift.org/2010/10/six-stunning-projects-that-show-the-power-of-data-visualization278/, accessed on 2 June 2015

Siebert, Fredrick S., Peterson, Theodore and Schramm, Wilbur (1963) Four Theories of the Press. Chicago: University of Illinois Press

SPJ (1996) ‘Code of the Society of Professional Journalists’, available online at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. Accessed on 5 June 2015.

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3 responses to “Data visualization as a sustaining value of journalism

  1. Pingback: Data visualization and America’s gun violence epidemic | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

  2. Pingback: #thebiggerpicture: photos + data | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

  3. Pingback: Q&A with a NYT graphics editor | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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