Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A dialogue between a reporter and a visualization journalist

Inspired by true events and, unfortunately, witnessed in many newsrooms:

Reporter/writer (RW): “This chart is just so boring. You need to spice it up, adding some shadows, 3D, illustrations, or something.

Visualization journalist (VJ): “This chart shows all relevant information, and it’s accurate, readable, and elegant. Its headline is a pun, so it even has some humor. If I agree to ‘spice it up’, would you do the same with the copy you're writing, if I ask you to?”

RW: “I want this graphic to go viral! Look, visuals are supposed to attract eyeballs, above all!”

VJ: “I will be happy to sacrifice the integrity of the chart if you do the same with your story. Would you be willing to add made-up colorful details here and there in your story to make it more ‘viral’?”

RW: “Well, I'm a journalist, you know... Anyway, as it is, nobody will read this chart!”

VJ: “Have you tested how many people really read your 1,000-word stories? Perhaps we could compare.”

RW: “But I want to do surprising, experimental stuff with our graphics!”

VJ: “I am all for experimentation, but it’s easy to experiment with someone else’s work, not knowing much about its rules and ethics. It’s harder to do the same with your own ‘stuff’.”

I wonder if so many reporters/editors (writers) realize how arrogant they sound when they recklessly tell visual journalists how to do their jobs.* It's insulting and it must stop outright. They need to get some of their own medicine, for a change. Give it to them. And never give up.

(*I'm also dismayed by how many of us have happily and uncritically adopted the jargon of marketing, but that's another story.)


  1. I actually sympathize with the writer. It's common for visualizers to use an extremely minimalist style. But it isn't the only style, and there isn't much evidence for using it in journalism.

    Let's flip that scenario. What if writers took that approach? Imagine if writers replaced their prose with bullet points and sentence fragments. Then when someone requests embellishment or stylized verbosity ("can't you add a prepositional phrase or a conjunction, so it's more fun to read?"), the writer would scoff at the thought of adding complexity.

    I'd say it's acceptable for someone to say "this looks boring, but I don't know how to fix it". If there's a reasoned argument for or against embellishment, that's great. But it's usually just a matter of preference.

  2. I'm actually not arguing against making charts/maps/infographics more attractive and fun. As you know, I don't belong to the minimalistic school, although I believe that accuracy and clarity should be the priority (not "getting eyeballs"). I'm arguing against:

    1) The fact that many (not all) reporters/editors look down on designers and believe they know much more than they do about which graphics work and which don't. Designers don't do the same with journalists/writers.

    2) The fact that many (not all) reporters/editors are willing to ignore ethics and professional standards when it comes to doing a graphic, but would never do the same when writing their own story.

    It's all about the context of this dialogue, I guess!

  3. > It's all about the context of this dialogue, I guess!

    Condescension towards vis designers is certainly not appropriate. But I suspect that vis designers would garner more respect by backing themselves up with evidence rather than proof by authority.

  4. ...which is something that the designer doesn't use in the dialogue. She's arguing in favor of applying the same standards to both text and visuals.

  5. After having the same argument brilliantly told here multiple times, a personal tip to prevent this type of dialogue to occur. Define some "graphic guidelines" that will be approved by the editor in chief. I write some general ones, basically copying most of your stuff Alberto. Such guidelines were useful to cut this kind of discussion short, regardless of how arrogant and stubborn a journalist is with his wish to spice things up. Here is for instance some of our graphics guidelines:

    - Graphics should not simplify messages, they should clarify it.
    - Illustrations/figurative graphics should only be used when they help the understanding and do not hinder the message of a graphic.
    - Graphics should minimise “chart junks”, i.e. minimise any element that does not contribute to clarifying the intended message
    - There should be a symbiosis between the story and the graphics. The tone, the style, the target readership of both text and graphics should be in sync.