Posted by Cognito on Thu, Jun 26 2014

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How data visualization is seducing journalism

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As enthusiastic participants or begrudging observers, we are constantly digesting a range of visual content. Social feeds are filled with cheeky “selfies”, to pictures of food, even to pictures of people taking pictures of food. (Subcategories of this also include “Asian people taking pictures of food” and “pictures of hipsters taking pictures of food they did not themselves cook.”)

The “selfie” trend illuminates one side of our obsession with creating visual content for our social profiles. It is an easily digestible “snapshot” that makes its impact in an instant.  The infographic, another visual content trend, has a similar, immediate effect on viewers. Its visual representation of data using design mechanics makes the complicated suddenly uncomplicated. It can abbreviate a 20 page report into a single page of pie charts and icons. It can shorten the story into a snapshot.

But is a picture really worth a thousand words? The shift from words to picture was already clear to marketers trying to connect with customers and increase brand awareness. Now, more than ever, it seems that this paradigm has extended to journalism too.

A bit of background here, where cognitive psychology can be helpful. In the early 70s, Canadian psychologist Allan Paivio formulated the famous Dual Coding Theory, suggesting that that visual and verbal information act as two distinctive systems. Therefore, picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they are dually encoded; they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code.

This “picture superiority effect” supposes that concepts learned by viewing pictures are more easily and frequently recalled than concepts learned by viewing their written word-form counterparts. This effect has been demonstrated in numerous experiments.

The infographic as a creative visualization tool has been incredibly useful in content marketing, but this trend has now spread into a world where information is king: journalism. Data visualization in the shape of infographics has solved the primary dilemma reporters face when dealing with significant amounts of data—data can be really burdensome for readers, especially when reading time is limited. Infographics’ merit is to capture attention while still getting a message across. They make data more intuitive and appealing, bringing the information to life. As Edward Tufte, author of “Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” points out, “Of all methods for analysing and communicating statistical information, well-designed data graphics are usually the simplest and at the same time most powerful”.

If infographics are the emblem of a society where data is consumed and digested in a quick, sometimes bulimic way, doubts are now arising around whether or not they are actually weakening journalism. Indeed, there is significant criticism over the overuse of this tactic, and arguments abound that infographics are more about style than substance.

Observers are divided on this point: on one hand, we might consider visual content a great help on offering “coveted at-a-glance understanding of complicated topics,” making them accessible to a wider audience. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that images can act as a substitute for proper written text and its level of in-depth analysis. Are they an easy antidote to readers’ and consumers’ shortening attention spans?

Whatever the answer, publishers and reporters have to face this change in content consumption and evolve accordingly. The capacity to create infographics is just the latest in a series of skills editorial staff need. But it has no bearing on  journos’ classic abilities. Traditionally, journalistic storytelling has based itself on content collected from experts and thought leaders to consolidate the writer’s angle. Nowadays journalists can’t merely rely on interviews, they must be proficient at uncovering a wealth of knowledge and information across countless sources and markets.

But technology could also be a powerful ally, providing several platforms where reporters can create infographics for free, like Visual.ly (which also allows journalists, graphic designers, statisticians and more to come together) and Tableau. Moreover, professional roles for infographics designers are multiplying in order to meet demand from companies and publications.

There is no golden rule to the perfect visual content and everyone can see that a poorly executed infographic can be just as disappointing as a badly written article or blog post. So, thorough preliminary research should be the first step of any journalistic use of infographics. A further best practice is to list all relevant data sources within the infographic and clearly state who produced the infographic. The visuals of the infographic should simplify the data whilst maintaining the integrity of the data comparisons in charts and graphs—in other words, an infographic is not an excuse to start comparing “apples to oranges.” Ultimately, to avoid oversimplification , infographics should always be supplementary to a proper text can be used to further explain the significance of the data. 

Image may be King now, but well-researched words and data still comprise the court. 

Topics
Content, Data, Design, Journalism,
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