Using data visualization to tell a story


Reporting data can often be boring for readers but it doesn't have to be, according to three up-and-coming journalists who presented a Data Visualization session at the recent News Industry Summit. Eli Murray and Nathaniel Lash, both of the Tampa Bay Times, along with Kara Dapena of the Miami Herald explained how data visualization provides insights to stories and offered tips for finding the right tools and people.

Data is a collection of records usually reported in straight numbers – and not very interesting. Murray, who is a news apps developer, showed a list of global temperature changes from 1850 to 2016. He then displayed a more robust animated chart that illustrated global warming trends using those same numbers.


"A good data visualization provides insights not immediately obvious from data alone," explained Murray. "It can help journalists shed new light on a topic."

Using data visualization also helps readers gain a better understanding, especially if it asks or answers a question or tells a story. Such graphic elements also can provide appropriate context for audiences.

"Data visuals should be making a point, not just being used as a pretty illustration," said Murray.

Murray also discussed the pros and cons of several data visualization tools that newspapers currently use. Those "tools of the trade" for charting and mapping included the following:

Chartbuilder -  PRO: Looks great on phone, web and print. CON: Limited text; doesn't support animation.

Fusion Tables - PRO: Free. Works with huge data bases. Excellent for exploring data. CON: Not very intuitive.

Tableau - PRO: Very powerful. Popular in newsrooms. Huge community around tableau because so many users. CON: Expensive, but some membership organizations offer free to journalists.

D3 -  PRO: Powerful support for animations. Free. Anyone who has an idea can contribute to it. CON: Requires a programmer.

Google Maps -  PRO: Interfaces with spreadsheets and it mapped it out. CON: Few choices. Maps will look similar to others.

QGIS - PRO: Top quality features. CON: No interface.

Map Box -  PRO: Used by newsrooms all over the country. Clean interface. Doesn't have as steep of learning curve as others.  CON: It is a paid app.

Leaflet - PRO: Free. Works in layers so you can add markers, lines, animations. CON: Requires a programmer.

Dapena, the data visualization editor for the Miami Herald, reviewed the creative process and the design principles that go into creating effective data visuals. She recommended the following tips for designers:

  • Streamline your workflow.
  • Give your graphics a consistent look and feel, to create a sense of familiarity for your audience.
  • Pick one or two typefaces and establish typography for common elements.
  • Make a baseline color pallet.

"Good data visualization is a story telling tool," she said. "It delivers accurate information in a format that requires the least effort possible from the audience to gain insight."

She recommended that newspapers create a style guide for visuals, but use it as a guide – not as a rule book. Most importantly, visuals should compare apples to apples.

"In addition to being accurate, your data should be painting a fair picture," she said.

In the session's final segment, data reporter Nathaniel Lash answered what he described as the big question: How do you find journalists with the technological skills to be data reporters?

"Hiring and training have to be priorities," he said. "The good news is that kids are still going to j-school, and many are coming from colleges that teach these kinds of skills and how to use technologies."

He recommended recruiting people who've created data visualizations for college newspapers, but he advised to look past "pretty portfolios" and at their actual clips. Get the candidate to walk you through their thought process for a visual they created.

"It's all about the clips," he said. "It's easy to fake to an editor, but hard to fake to a programmer." 

Mary Ann DeSantis is a former SNPA employee (1989-1998). She is now a Florida-based freelance writer and can be reached through her website at or via email at You may also follow her on Twitter @maryanndesantis.


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