Data Storytelling

The world houses 7 billion people and many times that amount of data. Journalists, researchers, and communicators must know how to glean insight from data and use what they find to craft compelling narratives that educate the public.

In an information-rich ecosystem, journalists cannot merely present facts. They must know how to “interview” data, understand the context from which it emerges, and work with software developers and graphic designers to visualize it. I developed these skills through a self-designed curriculum in data storytelling at the University of Michigan School of Information.

“Data journalists can help to collate, synthesize and present diverse and often difficult sources of information in a way which gives their audience real insights into complex issues. Rather than just recycling press releases and retelling stories they’ve heard elsewhere, data journalists can give readers a clear, comprehensible and preferably customizable perspective with interactive graphics and direct access to primary sources.” -Mirko Lorenz, Deutsche Welle, Business Models for Data Journalism, The Data Journalism Handbook

What is Data Storytelling?

Want to compare test scores and graduation rates at Illinois schools or see how Twitter helped spread and dispel rumors during the 2011 London riots? Award-winning features such as these illustrate the value of data storytelling. Journalists, researchers, and communicators can use data storytelling to engage more deeply with people and uncover insights that illuminate complex problems.

Data storytelling includes two components:

  • Finding the story
  • Presenting the narrative

First, data storytellers locate, clean, and analyze data. This provides a starting point from which to uncover a story; traditional reporting such as visiting places and interviewing sources fleshes out the narrative and shows why the story is important.

Second, data storytellers display the narrative in a compelling manner. This often includes cooperation with programmers, web developers, and graphic designers. Through data storytelling, the media, nongovernmental organizations, and anyone dedicated to the spread of knowledge can use data to find and craft narratives that educate and engage the public.

Data Storytelling Links

Tapestry, the inaugural conference on data storytelling, took place in February 2013. Videos of the presentations are here. I attended and compiled a dos and don’ts of data storytelling on Storify. Ben Jones of Tableau Software, which organized the conference, distilled the daylong conference into seven key points.

Finding Strength in Numbers, by John Diedrich, Nieman Reports
A reporter explains how he put his newfound database skills to work and produced an award-winning series on gun shop ownership.

Nate Silver’s genius isn’t math. It’s journalism, by Ezra Klein, Washington Post
The key to data storytelling isn’t expertise in crunching the numbers; it’s making people care about those numbers.

This Chart Is a Lonely Hunter: The Narrative Eros of the Infographic, by Reif Larsen, The Millions
Though charts and infographics run the risk of becoming cliché, thoughtfully crafted visual storytelling can convey complex information in a more powerful manner than text alone.

All that Glitters is Not Gold: A Common Misconception About Designing with Data, by Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez, Smashing Magazine
Too often, people think of infographics as colorful posters strewn with random data points; this primer describes how to highlight, not obscure, data through design.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets, by Charles Duhigg, New York Times
Companies collect massive amounts of data about their customers, and data storytelling also encompasses the duty of journalists to reveal to the public what companies do with this information.

Why Develop in the Newsroom, by Ben Walsh, Palewire
This computer-assisted reporter implores computer programmers to consider a career in journalism, because data-driven storytelling empowers people to hold their leaders accountable.

Data Science and Why Dogs Rule the Internet, by Lauren Drell, Mashable
Hilary Mason, chief scientist at the link-shortening service Bitly, shows how the data storytelling skill set transcends journalism; all industries generate data and need talented people to make sense out of it.

Additional Resources

The Data Journalism Handbook
This detailed guidebook describes how newsrooms are integrating data teams, profiles several examples of data journalism, and offers suggestions for aspiring data journalists.

Brian Boyer: Welcome to Hacker Journalism 101, take your seats, Nieman Journalism Lab
Brian Boyer, who has led news apps teams at the Chicago Tribune and NPR, offers a list of books and online tutorials to help aspiring data storytellers learn programming and web development skills.

School of Data
Anyone can use this open learning platform’s online courses and data wrangling handbook to build their data skills.

A Big Collection of Sites and Services for Accessing Data, by Andy Kirk
Journalists looking for stories or budding analysts looking for datasets to play around with can find a trove of data and tools here.

These blogs offer a wealth of data visualization examples from across the Web:
The Guardian (UK) Datablog
Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank
Eager Eyes
The Functional Art
Flowing Data
Information is Beautiful
Visual Complexity


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