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A Data Visualization is Worth a 1000 Words – The New Weapon of a Data Journalist

Data pushes journalism to the next level

We are used to being surrounded by easily accessible data. Whether we are checking the route, temperature, restaurant rankings or stock exchange – we like to be well-informed and have the data we need just a click away. We no longer rely on a pure chance; instead we need solid data proof for even the petty daily decisions. This tendency has been spotted by journalists who know that to make people read and share their articles they must lure them with attractive data visualizations and infographics. Data journalism emerged as an answer to a growing demand for data.

What is Data Journalism?

The first major news organization to adopt the term was The Guardian, which launched its Datablog in March 2009. What makes data journalism different to the rest of journalism is the possibility to combine the traditional ability to tell a compelling story with the sheer scale and range of digital information now available. We can also view data journalism as a process that consists of two steps: first the analysis to bring sense and structure out of the never-ending flow of data, and second presentation to communicate relevant insights to your audience.

Data can both the source of data journalism, or it can be the tool with which the story is told. Journalists can use programming to automate the process of gathering and combining information like for example finding connections between hundreds of thousands of documents.

By implementing infographics journalists manage to interest audiences in important issues. One of the best data visualizations created by General Electrics visualizes data from over 7.2 million electronic medical records to tell about the prevalence of health symptoms and the symptoms commonly associated with each other. Thanks to a colorful and clean design we can absorb a mass of data within a glance.

However data visualizations don’t have to be that serious and can be simply entertaining. Like Cocktails – clear and informative depiction of 77 popular cocktails and the ingredients they consist of.  This infographic might be very disturbing if it’s not Friday yet.

3 Cocktails You Must Know

Why is data journalism important?

The excess of data concerns journalism just like any other business. Today news stories are flowing in as they happen reported by multiple sources and eye-witnesses, multiplied by social media where they are shared, ranked, commented on and more often than not: ignored. The mass of inflowing data is too overwhelming and fast for us to single out one meaningful piece of information and take our time to understand the causation behind it, its impact and context.

This is why journalists should use data. It enables them to transform something abstract into something everyone can understand and relate to. Data journalists gather data from hundreds of sources filter it and visualize the outcome. In other words they perform work which otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do ourselves, be that due to lack of technical knowledge, no access to government sources or simply lack of time. Data journalism serves us with deeper insights into what is happening around us and how it might affect us. However high-flown it may sound – it helps us to understand the world.

For journalists, the reign of data means that they must adapt new skills for searching, understanding and visualizing digital sources. It’s a facelift of traditional journalism rather than a substitute for it.

Implement data to your story

The availability of innovative data visualization tools and their decreasing prices, in combination with a focus on high performance and efficiency in all aspects of society, have led decision-makers from different industries to meticulously quantify the performance of their operations, monitor trends and identify new opportunities.

Companies keep coming up with new metrics showing how well they perform. Politicians love to brag about reductions in unemployment numbers and increases in GDP. Stakeholders from different industries have already realized that data visualizations are more likely to attract attention and gain trust than other facts as they carry an aura of seriousness, even when they are designed to mislead.

The prerequisite you should consider before harnessing data to enhance your story is that you have enough data, regardless of what industry you come from. Remember that great data projects don’t generally begin with great data sets. They begin with great questions and the desire to find the hardest evidence available to answer those questions. The basic one would be: is this phenomenon measurable in some way? Just as much as good quotes, facts and descriptions power good narrative journalism, data visualization is only as good as the data that fuels it. Ask yourself if you have sufficient quantity of quality data.

Take this old journalistic truth to your heart: a number alone doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a starting point for a story. You should look for context, compare it to other data, and observe if the trend is going up or down. How has it changed over time? The chart presenting the growth of China’s population since 1960 is a good example of a dynamic chart which shows the change over time. Moreover it gives the user the possibility to drill down for more insights and compare data with growth numbers from other countries. You can turn a number into story by comparing values just like in the National Geographic chart showing how much more likely you were to die of heart disease than, say alcohol poisoning or bicycle accident. Another way to juxtapose multiple data is to track flows. This TED visualization traces the words that appear most often in TED Talk descriptions. Each line corresponds to a word, and its snaking movement shows how its frequency of use has changed over time.

Most Commonly Used Words in TED Talks Over Time

If you have relatively few data points but have information that might be of use to some of your readers, consider just laying out the data in tabular form. It’s clean, easy to read and doesn’t create unrealistic expectations of “story.” In fact, tables can be a very efficient and elegant layout for basic information.

What’s the secret behind a great data visualization?

Finally, let’s have a look at the infographics that went viral in the recent years to learn what content viewers like to see the most. It can be summarized under 4 categories:

  1. Humorous.

This category includes graphics that pick up on trending memes or social phenomena to make them visible by illustrating our daily observations in a new, more ‘scientific’ way to come up with a humorous result. The infographic about the lifestyle benefits higher education gives to you is an aesthetically pleasing illustration of the added value of education that goes beyond a paper diploma.

  1. New perspective.

The infographic that looks at phenomena from a new perspective, whether by presenting research that uncovers new information, or by combining existing information in a new way, just like in the hierarchy of digital distractions that keep us away from actual work.

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

  1. Do it Yourself (DIY)

Any instructional guide ‘how to’ would fall into this bucket. The information is generally not time-sensitive, potentially providing content value for years to come. These designs doesn’t always have to be particularly good from an aesthetic perspective, because their real value lies in addressing questions that large audiences are interested in. Take this infographic on how to make infographics as an example.

  1. Just in time

This category includes graphics tied to most current events or significant dates, such as graphics made upon the death of an important person, anniversary of a historical event, the release of a video game, an upcoming holiday, the growth of a popular civil movement etc. A visualization about shopping on Black Friday, the day on which Americans traditionally go on a shopping spree, presents some insightful and humorous data, for example a percentage of Black Friday shoppers that camped out at a store.

Journalism based on data and data visualizations is here to stay. Data leverages storytelling in every industry and is the key ingredient that the audience desires. If by any chance you haven’t notice this trend yet, become aware of it now and appreciate the potential that lies in your data. Look beyond the rows of numbers in Excel and use data to tell your story.

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