Final Story – Data Visualization: Misleading with Graphics

BOSTON — Each floor of the Massachusetts College of Arts is a haphazard mix of colorful pieces and works in progress. Tucked away down third floor hallway is a lecture hall where designer and media activist Mushon Zer-Aviv gave a talk to art students and guests on the art of data visualization.

Zer-Aviv brought a reality check to art students by emphasizing the importance of three components to organizing data: content, structure, and aesthetic; combining the elements of numbers and art.

“Data is a recording of reality to language,” Zer-Aviv said.

As of late, more and more readers receive information through charts and graphs – pictures – rather than numbers themselves. This phenomenon has also been shaping the way journalists report and publish their work. However, as helpful as data can be, it can also be detrimental to reporting when reporters or designers take their own liberties.

“I think it’s [data] immensely helpful but I also think it is one of the many avenues of getting stories…it’s another tool that people can use to help tell and extend stories beyond what they can with pen and notepad so it’s incredibly valuable,” Todd Wallack, Boston Globe reporter, said. “Numbers can look pretty stunning. I would hesitate to publish it until you check it out in lots of other ways.”

Wallack listed a common few mistakes journalists and designers make including: sensationalizing headlines, comparing unrelated sets of data, and starting the y-axis on a graph at a point other than zero.

According to a study done by two Yale researchers, the “credibility” of a source often dictates the public’s trust. They found that, “communications may be made more convincing without any alteration in content, simply by virtue of being presented with elements associated with science.” Based on this logic, the public can be misled by graphs and scientific formulas. With so much information available for consumption, the credibility of information is becoming more and more important.

“It can be difficult to digest the information and then put it into a graphic,” Erica Maybaum, a student graphic designer for the BDC Wire said. “I’m always double-checking with my editor to make sure I have the facts straight.”

This is the reason why journalists, and designers, need to be cautious while dabbling in data visualization. Reading data is one thing, but to be able to understand it in order to put data into an easy-to-read and accurate graphic can be difficult. It requires precision and accuracy from the designer.

However, journalists should not be scared to use graphs and other graphics to accompany articles. If done well, accompanying images add a depth to articles that cannot be achieved by the writing itself.

“I think journalists should dive into it because it’s a language…it crystalizes if done correctly. It’s incredibly helpful,” Safoura Rafeizadeh, a professor at Boston University said. “There was a video about the visualization of the economy during the market crash. Nobody would understand what’s happening [when in writing], but the crash was explained so clearly, so simply.”

Rafeizadeh describes data visualization as a “simplified language”, and says, “that’s something you cannot capture in your writing”. She compares graphic design to other fields, such as journalism, when it comes to the ease in which professionals can deceive the public.

“There has to be a level of decency in the journalist or the designer who is presenting it. Also, it has always been helpful to have an editor,” Rafeizadeh said, speaking to the importance of ethics within the design and journalism fields.

Rafeizadeh mentioned the Rolling Stone debacle, which questioned a story on an alleged sexual assault case at University of Virginia, culminating in a former magazine editor poked holes into the story, according to New York magazine. In similar ways, this idea of checks and balances can be applied to graphics and designers themselves. Writers and designers must take extra precaution that all their information is fact-checked with information sources as powerful as the Internet at the general public’s fingertips.

At the Boston Globe headquarters near Dorchester, the old newsroom has not changed very much. The place is a labyrinth, with examples like the “data people” in one corner. This is the environment Globe reporter Wallack is used to.

“When possible, [reporters should] include hyperlinks or footnotes or other explanations as to where the data came from so that anybody that’s really interested can trace it back and make sure that it’s correct,” Wallack said.

A combination of visual designers and journalists is incredibly useful to newsrooms, as the current trend happens to be visualization. David Butler, an infographic artist for the editorial department at the Globe, said, “one way to mislead is to purposely mislead someone” and that simply put, the public trusts the designer not to.

At the Globe, Butler finds an assortment of stories – from those that work really well with charts to those that force the story to be redone. He shows that it is really situation based and that charts can give “richness of detail” that can’t be written otherwise.

Students were shown two graphs here at Boston University. For simplicity’s sake, both graphs only had numerical labels for the axes. The first graph had no issues, and showed little discrepancy between the four bars of data. The second graph, however, had a skewed y-axis that began at higher number than zero and ended at a smaller number than the first. Because of this small change, the discrepancy suddenly turned huge. At first glance, most students thought the second graph had the biggest change, when in reality it was the same data. Journalists often do not get more than a first glance or so from readers for their articles, making it incredibly important that this “first impression” readers get is an accurate one of the article’s content.

Leila Armush, a freelance graphic designer for MentorNet, pointed out that it is up to the journalists themselves to be clear to the audience. As those in control of the way the article or graphic is posted up, they need to be aware of the type of impression the accompanying graphic is making.

“I think that if the article talks about numerical stats within the body of the text, then visuals are helpful,” Armush said. “Any well-designed graphic or chart would help the reader fully understand the significance of the figures. And some of us are more visual learners than readers, so we would find graphics particularly helpful.”

A resounding thread from many data journalists and visual journalists is that while it is incredibly easy to mislead the public with a graph, it is ultimately their own responsibility to make any and all graphics concise and consumable.

“Right now, I think it’s [data] incredibly hot and popular as evidenced by the creation of Vox, 538, Upshot and other sites that seem heavily focused on visualization,” Wallack said. “I don’t know if it will continue going up forever. I think there are a lot of questions about some of the visualizations that are done because you still have to spend a lot of time getting data, understanding data, and presenting it fairly…It’s easy to quickly look for data and throw it onto the web before understanding what the data really is.”


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