Data Visualization and the Media: Journalists, Computer Scientists Must Collaborate

By Michael Martinez
Published 08/29/2017
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photographerMore than ever, the nation’s 83,000 working journalists are being pressed to explain complicated information in easy-to-understand graphs and illustrations, especially as audiences migrate to mobile, social, and other digital platforms.

Susan Reilly, professor of multimedia studies at Florida Atlantic University, says media professionals are trying to create data visualizations with little training and with programs that were developed for other professions.

This causes problems. Writers and broadcasters end up wasting too much time trying to adapt these programs to their needs.

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Some large organizations, such as the New York Times, have full-time staff with expertise in statistical methods, data mining, coding, and computer graphic applications.

Alberto Cairo, the Knight chair in visual journalism at the University of Miami, provides two ways for data visualization to be effective: one is an infographic that provides “spontaneous insight” (the aha moment) and the other is an infographic that provides “knowledge building insight” gained through the exploration of a complex system, Reilly writes.

Many smaller, local news outlets can’t afford statisticians or computer graphics professionals, however.

As a result, many journalists feel overwhelmed.

“For example, the designated journalists/data analysts at two local newspapers in South Florida (with circulations of roughly 100,000) use Excel, Access, MySQL, R, and QGIS. They have to look at the numbers several ways before deciding the best way to tell the story in graphics. Since coding is problematic, they often rely on D3.js alternatives, like DataWrapper, Google Chart Tools, and StoryMap JS,” she writes in a recent issue of IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine. (login may be required for full text)

Local journalists need tools and a chance to collaborate with computer pros.

“Hopefully, a dialogue can begin between journalists and computer scientists about how to work together to help local journalists provide the information that citizens need in order to make good decisions in a democratic society,” Reilly says.

Michael Martinez

About Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez, the editor of the Computer Society’s Computer.Org website and its social media, has covered technology as well as global events while on the staff at CNN, Tribune Co. (based at the Los Angeles Times), and the Washington Post. He welcomes email feedback, and you can also follow him on LinkedIn.