Knight Center
Knight Center


ISOJ: Journalists need to learn data visualization and infographic design skills to complement their message

See a collection of tweets about this panel in the Storify below.

Kim Rees, Scott Klein, Hannah Fairfield, and Alberto Cairo. Lea Thompson/For the Knight Center.

Journalists aren’t as good at presenting data as they think they are, and journalism schools need to do more to teach the theory and skills necessary for quality presentation to go along with a quality message.

That was the message from Alberto Cairo, professor of journalism and data visualization at the University of Miami and chair of the data visualization panel at the 14th International Symposium on Online Journalism.

Cairo used slides from the first day of ISOJ presentations to show that even professional journalists still need practice when it comes to data visualization and infographics. He says that journalism schools need to incorporate data visualization skills and theory into their core curriculum rather than leaving them as electives. He has done this in the University of Miami’s undergrad and MA journalism programs, as well as a new MFA in interactive media program. Graphic and web design, data journalism, and intro to infographics and visualizations are now core classes for University of Miami journalism students. To see examples of the work produced by Cairo’s students, click here.

According to Cairo, the future of journalism education lies in making people understand that journalistic values and skills are applicable to other areas of life and work. Data visualizations are key to this.

Cairo was followed three panelists who presented different, impressive experiences of data visualization.

Immersive Storytelling

The first panelist was Hannah Fairfield, graphics editor at the New York Times. Fairfield spoke about her experience in creating Snow Fall, an interactive multimedia piece that told the story of an avalanche in the mountain of Washington State.

She said the inspiration for her team came from The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a book that used pictures and words to carry the story, rather than words alone.  She said she wanted to take that spirit into her project.

Snow Fall also highlighted how “data visualization” can mean more than pie charts and points on a graph. Fairfield discussed the creation of the map of the mountain, which was done with a digital elevation model and satellite images, rather than a simple picture.

According to Fairfield, data visualizations and graphics should be located directly into the story to provide context and locate the reader in ways that words are unable to, rather than located on separate pages or thought of as supplemental material.

News Applications

Fairfield was followed by Scott Klein, editor of news applications at ProPublica. Klein describe his team’s job as designing applications that allow readers to explore all levels and types of data without making them feel dumb and without having to simplify or summarize data.

Klein bases his applications around “the far and the near.” The far refers to the highest level of the data – the national story and national trends, and generally the first page the reader sees. The near is the most specific level of data – the block, the county, or the school district.  At this level, additional data can be layered to provide utility.

Klein also emphasized that news applications allow readers to create their own stories. Using ProPublica’s Opportunity Gap project as an example, Klein showed how at the far level, readers see national trends and comprehend the national story. After they understand that story, they can search through the data themselves to create story that relates to them personally. A reader can look up data for his own high school and compare that data to his school district, county, state, and the whole nation to understand all those levels.

Visualizations as a Message

The final panelist was Kim Rees, founder of Periscopic, a socially responsible data visualization firm. Rees used her presentation to focus on the emotional rather than analytical dimension of data visualizations, showing a visualization on gun deaths in the US produced by her firm to make her point.

Rees also made a point that reporters and graphic designers should not fall victim to “death by disclaimer.” She acknowledged that the data in her own firm’s visualization was incomplete, as Florida did not report their homicides to the FBI, which was the source she used for the project. Rather than throw the whole project out, her team made a decision to note the absence in their methodology. 

She said filling her project with limitations and disclaimers would take away from its emotional impact, elegance, and simplicity. Her team decided they had a story to tell, and decided to tell it.


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