Telling Stories Through Engaging Visuals

The bank robbery story is one of seven in the Hired Guns series that, together, show how armed security guards are subject to very little regulation, oversight, and screening. It’s a complex topic, full of nuance.

To make it easier for readers to digest, Walter worked with a data reporter, researcher, and news applications developer to create a data visualization (apps.cironline?.org/hired-guns). Visitors can click through it to see which states require firearms training, mental health exams, and background checks for armed guards. The team built the graphic using data they gathered from public records and interviews with people in each state.

“The interactive was really about telling the story in the most simple and dramatic way,” Walter says. “It’s another version of the story that I think does a very good job of explaining and summarizing everything that was in the very lengthy print project.” The Guards With Guns visualization helps personalize the story-Texans, for instance, might be surprised to learn the Lone Star State doesn’t check if armed guard applicants are prohibited from possessing a gun.

Another interactive that brings a complicated message home is called Most Americans’ Best Days Are Behind Them, created by Darla Cameron and Ted Mellnik. It is part of The Washington Post‘s December 2014 series, Liftoff & Letdown, which explores why the middle class is flailing and how to reverse course. By interacting with the visual, readers can see when the inflation-?adjusted median household income peaked in their county and in others throughout the country.

“The map tells the story, in some ways, in a fuller ability than even the characters in the narrative,” says Jim Tankersley, the Post‘s economic policy correspondent who wrote the package’s pieces. “You can see so vividly how much of the country has moved backwards or not forward at all in 10 years, 15 years, 25 years.”

Adding interactivity to graphics has become a crucial component of data journalism and is being fueled by a new kind of technical know-how in newsrooms. “There’s now an entire group of people who do development and coding to make that data interactive and do amazing things with it online, and that was never part of the equation before,” IRE’s Horvit says.

Interviewing Data Requires Rigor

Data visualizations and numbers-heavy text are proliferating in print and online publications. Still, Gabrielson says he believes data illiteracy remains a huge problem in newsrooms.

It’s possible that some journalists who have only asked questions to humans may find it intimidating to do the same to data. Likewise, numbers can easily mislead even those comfortable finding gems in datasets. “You really do need to understand where your data is coming from, how it was collected, who collected it, why they collected it, what it says, and what it doesn’t say,” Vicens says.

He ran his judicial elections data by experts to ensure he was working with trustworthy sources. “It’s prudent to go to somebody who studies elections and say, ‘Does what they’re saying make sense and is it reasonable?’ ” he says. “It’s so easy to get caught up with data that is goofy or doesn’t say what people think it says.”

Many reporters also turn to experts to confirm they’re on the right track with their math and statistics. For instance, Walter and Gabrielson got three people to sign off on final methodology and findings for the bank crimes story.

Likewise, Tankersley often relies on economists he trusts to confirm his interpretations are fair and accurate. That’s what he did for the Liftoff & Letdown stories in which he performed a number of calculations in Microsoft’s Excel using data from hundreds of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think you can run into a danger if all you do is download [stats],” he says. For instance, it’s not enough to just look at figures on the growth of the U.S. economy over time and compare them to what’s happened to middle-class incomes-you also need to consider whether the trends about the economy versus incomes are affected by population growth, he says.

“Being able to talk through those sort of things with people is really important because for as much as data can help you build a great story, your interpretations of data are what end up pulling you off the rails more often than not,” he says.

Tankersley warns against another pitfall of data journalism: Hunting down numbers to buttress a point, instead of letting findings drive the narrative. “The data actually are the most powerful tools we have to find good human stories, because the numbers help us understand what is actually an indicative story of what is happening in the world and what is just an outlier, interesting thing,” he says. “By starting with numbers, you are much more likely to then find the people who help you understand those big trends than the other way around.”

Newsrooms Searching for Number-Crunching Newsies

In’s 2014 ranking of 200 jobs, “newspaper reporter” ranks number ?199, besting only “lumberjack.” The career site says the journalism function is, “A job that has lost its luster dramatically over the past five years [and] is expected to plummet even further by 2022 as more and more print publications abandon operations.”

But that cloud of doom doesn’t seem to be hovering over people at newspapers or other media outlets who can both spin a yarn and query a database. “I get calls from editors and producers who all want people on their staffs now who can work with data, and the demand is outstripping the supply,” says Mark Horvit, who is both executive director of the nonprofit Investigative Reporters & Editors and a veteran of what was once known as computer-assisted reporting.

His organization’s National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) program, a joint venture with the Missouri School of Journalism, has offered data training to students and working reporters for about 25 years. Other journalism schools also are offering data courses. Among them is Columbia Journalism School’s The Lede Program, which launched last summer and focuses on computing, data analysis, and data visualization.

The program’s director, Jonathan Soma, says many people working in data journalism today don’t come from traditional journalism backgrounds. “It’s a very open time in journalism, where there are so many aspects-math, design, programming, storytelling-and all of these things can come together as different parts of the whole,” he says. “There are so many angles for people to come into this from.”