4 Ways Data Visualizations Are Transforming the Way We Read the News

Until recently, online articles have consisted of the same static content as physical newspapers. However, new data visualization libraries and increasing amounts of programming talent on news teams has opened new doors to build interactive communication with readers. In a field focused on informing people, interactive graphics are a game-changer, allowing publications to immerse readers and let them explore the data for themselves. Here are a few ways news sites are augmenting their static text articles with data visualizations.

1. Offering Supportive Graphics to Drive a Point Home

Explanatory graphics – graphics that tell the user the main point of the graphic – support points the author wants the reader to understand. The reader does not have to find their own conclusions, but also gets more information and can find nuances in the underlying data.

For example, The Washington Post published a short article asking the question: Are the Winter Olympics For the Rich? Their answer was likely backed up by three succinct points: countries from all income levels go and win medals, the Summer Olympics attract nearly twice as many countries and low-income countries are less likely to medal, especially in the Winter. Each of these points is accompanied by a visualization to back it up, with some additional data and annotations that back up the article’s point.

2. Using Graphics that Incorporate Reader Responses

Exploratory graphics – unrestricted graphics that allow the reader ask their own questions of the data – are useful for large, complex data sets and for very open-ended topics that readers will want many different insights. For example, sports data where readers want information about a specific team lends itself to exploratory graphics.

Bloomberg Business has a large repository of interactive visualizations, one of which shows the valuations of MLB teams in 2013. This graphic is truly exploratory – allowing the reader to view information about a particular team or sort the teams by value, league, division or wins.

3. Both Explanatory and Exploratory Graphics

Giving readers the chance to explore an article’s underlying data, while also pointing out the highlights, lets the authors point out the insights they believe are important and allows the reader to make their own discoveries.

Last year, Fast Company explored requested and received school funding in different states. They took both the explanatory and exploratory route – allowing the reader to look at a particular state, but also giving quick-links to the most extreme cases and detailing the highlights below.

There are many great sports visualizations due to the large amount of data available. Reuben Fischer-baum and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight charted NBA teams’ Elo scores (a measure of team strength) over time. The reader can view a specific team or read about four teams that have been highlighted at the bottom.

4. Breaking Readers’ Expectations 

Interaction invites engagement and participation from readers, asking them to think for themselves as opposed being spoon-fed facts. After being told a fact, a reader may become biased and never know what their original opinion of the topic was. Asking them to stop and think about their previous conceptions and biases can be very powerful.

The New York Times recently published an article that asked the reader to make a guess about the relationship between college attendance and parents’ income. This has two effects: the reader is personally attached to the outcome (are they right or wrong) and then gets to see which of their preconceived notions might be wrong. An additional benefit is that the New York Times can collect those guesses and write a follow-up article about readers’ expectations.

These examples demonstrate our ability to enhance the news with interactive graphics. There is still a gap between data visualizers, designers, and developers which needs to be bridged in order to truly innovate with data visualization, but a new tool pops up almost every day. This is just the beginning, get ready for more immersive, informative news media in the future.