Seeing is Believing… or is it?

Readers rely on journalists to adequately do their jobs. There has to be a degree of trust between the reader and the journalist: you trust that the information presented to you has been thoroughly verified and checked by the professional. This is a necessity. After all, most people simply do not have the time to fact-check every bit of information they encounter. They read the newspaper in the morning, before work, in order to stay properly informed. As such, it helps if a journalist is able to effectively distillate the essence of a story. As interesting as a subject may be, not everyone is willing to read 20 pages on a story.


Visualizations can be a helpful tool for telling your story. They have the ability to reveal patterns and trends that words cannot always convey. This is especially of invaluable importance to a data journalist. After all, numbers can be quite daunting at times. Especially in large quantities. Visualizations have the ability to translate numbers into comprehensible images that illuminate the story you want to tell. A good example of this is an election map made by Texty, that visualizes the results of the regional elections in the Ukraine.


                                         Blue is pro-Russia, orange is pro-Europe.

Ukrain_MapThis image illuminates the divide that exists in this country to the reader. As can be seen, the western part of the country voted for the pro-Europe party, the eastern part voted for the pro-Russia party. An image such as this one really tells a story within itself, because it is an insightful image that illustrates the divide; a divide that, in this case, fuels the tensions in this country.

Visualizations gone wrong

However, images are not always this insightful (though at first it might appear that they are). An example is the following poll I encountered:

At first glance, it gives the impression that the confidence in Obama’s Economic Plan is steadily increasing. However, the x-axis tells you a different story: confidence in the plan is actually decreasing. The months are displayed in reverse chronological order, making it easy to be misled by this visual when taking a quick look at it. Somehow, I think that was the intention. Now follows another example of a misleading visual:

The first pie chart might look more visually attractive, but it also makes Item A look as big (or even smaller) than Item C. However, in the regular pie chart it can be seen that Item A is actually more than two times bigger than Item C.

These are good examples of what can go wrong when it is attempted to visualize data. Alberto Cairo, teacher of the fifth module of the Online Data Journalism Course, stated that good visualizations are beautiful, functional and insightful. While you can attract viewers by creating an appealing visual, what matters the most is what the visual is able to convey. It seems that the 3D pie chart was a case of style over substance, in that regard.

Avoiding visual errors

Alberto Cairo named the following four features as essential for a great visualization:

  1. Functional: The shape of the graphic is altered to fit the questions you want to answer with the visual.
  2. Beautiful: Attractiveness will make more readers want to read it.
  3. Insightful: The visual puts your data in context.
  4. Enlightening: The information revealed by the visualization shapes the perception of the reader.

You should always keep in mind that the visuals you create for a particular story are graphical representations of evidence. While a beautiful visualization might attract viewers, it is the substance that matters the most in the long run. It falls in line with my earlier blog posts, where I (hopefully) illustrated the importance of being accurate. For me, accurate data is the fundament on which you build your story. Both good visuals and good writing can help you tell your story more clearly, but the facts count the most. You can be a verbose writer, throwing eloquent and difficult words in left and right, but a well-written, inaccurate piece is still inaccurate. The same is true for visualizations. You have to choose the best graphic form that is functional, represents the evidence, and is able to answer the questions your story might bring up. For example, the 3D pie chart: it might look fancier, but it also misrepresents the evidence you want to present to your readers. It is therefore an inaccurate way to display your evidence. A normal pie chart might be less attractive visually, but at least it represents your evidence more precisely. It is easier to extract the meaning from it. And that will only make it easier for you to tell your story.