Data and Graphics and Maps, Oh My!

(Firstly, can I take this parenthetical space to thank every single human who read my post and/or left a comment and/or followed my blog. Your support is flooring, and I am humbled beyond words.)

“We are so different.”

This is what one of my best friends and roommates (bffmates? room friends?) said to me two weeks ago while we sat in our 9:30 a.m. reporting lecture.

We aren’t that different, in reality. We have been roommates for two years, going on three. We share mutual love for Shakespearean humor, iced coffee and Tom Hiddleston’s face. We have been known to take synchronized doze-off-during-SVU naps. 

We don’t, however, share a love for data journalism.

On this fine Tuesday morning, neither of us had more than 90 minutes of sleep after pulling all-nighters to finish a semester project. We trudged into lecture, half-delirious and all sorts of exhausted. I was clinging to my coffee. Hannah was trying to keep her eyes open. Elise was worried for the both of us.

Mark Horvit, Investigative Reporters and Editors executive director and J-School professor, was guest lecturing. I had seen Horvit lecture a couple times before in lower-level journalism classes. He was funny and engaging, and, coincidentally, married to another one of my favorite journalism professors. Fingers crossed I wouldn’t pass out in the third row (from exhaustion, not from being starstruck).

He was speaking to us about investigative reporting and the art of finding “stuff.” One of his examples was using the advanced search tools within Google. Fun fact: you can search .gov domains for Excel documents. Why does that matter? Because instead of giving you 16.2 million results which are ranked by algorithms and advertising capabilities, Google will give you spreadsheets of government data about oil spills in a specific area.

And that’s just plain awesome.

I let out a whispered, but audible, “whoa” when Horvit pulled up the aforementioned public data. It was at this point when Hannah turned to me and said “We are so different.”

This is not supposed to make her look bad. Hannah is a phenomenal reporter, whose desire to learn and share people’s stories is truly awesome.

She just doesn’t get as excited over data as I do.

Call me nerdy (I’ll take the compliment), but that kind of stuff makes me really happy. I love explanatory graphics, maps and interactive interfaces. I especially love maps with data happening in real-time. There’s something about seeing the creative, visual presentation of important pieces of journalism that really makes me happy to be working in such a dynamic, flexible, ever-growing field.

If you follow my Twitter or have ever spoken with my about my career ambitions, you know I love The Atlantic. My dad has been subscribed to the publication for as many years as I can remember, but I never read it growing up. I think I discounted it, thinking it was gross, boring business journalism, or maybe simply writing that would go over my head (I have recently come to the realization that business journalism doesn’t have to be gross and boring). My love for the magazine bloomed over the last few years as I grew into my journalism shoes. Three articles in particular showcase The Atlantic’s attention to graphics and modern visuals:

  1. The Case Against Cars in 1 Utterly Entrancing GIFThe cdek for this piece is “Dense travel in a dense world makes sense,” which instantly draws you in. While The Atlantic didn’t create the .gif used in this piece, senior editor Derek Thompson contextualizes it, offering statistics and supplemental reading. He also refers to the .gif as “data viz,” which is up there with “charticle” in my list of favorite nerdy journalism words. 
  2. A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths. When I first saw this online, my jaw dropped and I instantly shared it on Twitter and Facebook. A REAL-TIME MAP OF BIRTHS AND DEATHS? IS THIS REAL? HOLY BUCKETS. Health editor James Hamblin does an excellent job of putting together resources and other links. Check this out, y’all. It’s amazing.
  3. How Three Decades of News Coverage Has Shaped Our View of The World. This piece has a lot of information and three of the most visually-stimulating graphics I’ve seen in recent memory. This is another great example of The Atlantic finding graphics (this time from Oxford and Guardian) to illustrate an otherwise data-heavy article. Sometimes we need a tasteful aggregation of information, and that’s okay.
Screenshots of real-time maps are slightly less exciting...
Screenshots of real-time maps are slightly less exciting…
Thank you, Guardian, for this awesome, awesome, awesome map.
Thank you, Guardian, for this awesome, awesome, awesome map.

The purpose of this blog post is not just to gush about one of my favorite publications, but to point out that I did actually absorb something during beat meetings. My editor Katherine has been working on getting our beat to not rely on words. This seems silly: to tell a room full of writers to use more pictures. We reporters are selfish, and would really rather not relinquish our precious, perfectly-AP-styled words to the graphics desk. But we need to. Not for any more complicated reason than this: sometimes images do what words cannot.

And that’s fine.

The point of journalism is to educate, inform and serve the public for the greater good. If trying to describe proportions or worldwide trends in words doesn’t serve the greater good, that doesn’t make it very good, does it?

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