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9 visual journalists changing the way we tell stories with data

By Katherine Kim / July 24, 2019

People often say a picture is worth 1,000 words—and that adage has never been more important for content creators in the digital era. A quick glance at how we seek out, consume and understand news highlights just how visual and experiential our culture has become.

Today, one in five US adults prefer to receive their news via social media instead of print newspapers, and Americans overall are trading in the written word for TV and digital media. Coupled with our collective shrinking attention span, it’s no wonder people are looking for different ways to consume the same content in a fast, easy-to-understand and often mobile format.

Also known as visual journalism, this method of storytelling enables readers to better understand complex, sophisticated topics in a shorter amount of time. Illustrations, maps, charts, movies and other digital content make nuanced stories easier and faster to articulate, deepening the audience’s understanding and improving their chances of remembering key takeaways. And while media may be setting the standard, smart brands are taking note.

Technology has given both journalists and brand marketers access to more, and more complex, data than ever before. It’s the job of the storyteller to use that data to create better stories that are useful, interesting and digestible to a wide audience. For brands looking to explore mixed-media storytelling for their own narratives, consider learning from these nine standout visual journalists making a name for themselves.

1. Mona Chalabi

Chalabi is a journalist who advocates for the importance of data in the fight to prevent politicians from making false claims. Born to Iraqi immigrants, Chalabi has a master’s degree in international security and currently produces the segment “Number of the Week” for NPR.

Chalabi creates hand-drawn, visually compelling pieces to contextualize hard facts, backing up her graphics with extensive quantitative research. One striking illustration, below, depicts the difference between square footage per person in US prisons and square footage per person in US border detention facilities. Visualizations like Chalabi’s put data into perspective. She makes the situation imaginable for the reader, and her images resonate long after they’ve finished reading.

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Not much to celebrate about this country today. Many of you have seen the horrific photos of overcrowding in US immigration detention facilities that were published on Tuesday. I contacted @forensicarchitecture to estimate the size of the cell in the photograph – they looked at features like the ceiling tiles and were able to say that the cell is approximately 270-320 square feet in size (25-30 square metres) even though it held 88 men. That means that each person has just 3 square feet to think, to sleep, to breathe. There is no excuse for these indignities. The company that runs this detention center (GEO group) reported $145 million in profits in 2018, 50% of their revenue came from the US government. The whole system is corrupt – it's easy to get these contracts and no one gets into trouble when abuses take place (evidence: in 2018, the Office of the Inspector General found that ICE is not following federal procurement guidelines when they grant contracts like these. And in 2019, that same office found that ICE isn’t holding these companies accountable when they fail to meet performance standards. Posting links to the reports in my stories). No wonder that investment sites suggest GEO Group is a great stock option for investors who don't give a shit about human rights abuses. Sources: Office of the Inspector General report on "dangerous overcrowding", published July 2, 2019 American Correctional Association, 2003

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2. Allison McCann

McCann is a London-based visual journalist whose articles are accompanied by crisp, interactive graphics. One particularly innovative story uses 3D mapping to demonstrate why Notre Dame went up in flames so easily. Rather than leaving it up to the reader to visualize the damage, McCann leaves little room for misinterpretation as to how the disaster started. Her 3D rendering of the Notre Dame fire encourages the reader to interact with the story and thoroughly explore layers of the model. She also frequently creates custom maps, whether to show the closure of polls after the gutting of the voting rights act, or to illustrate the path of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique.

3. Simon Rogers

An award-winning data journalist and the author of Facts Are Sacred, Rogers has also created a range of infographics for children’s books. Some of his more famous projects include “Electionland,” “Google Year in Search,” and “Visualizing Google Data.”

In addition to his own projects, he is also a proselytizer of data. Rogers created The Guardian’s data blog, an online data resource that publishes hundreds of raw datasets and encourages users to visualize and analyze the information. One of his more visceral projects includes this interactive GIF of world-wide earthquakes since September. Giving readers the ability to see the events unfold and to examine the impact of earthquakes from region to region makes this an especially powerful tool for visualizing natural disasters.

4. Nathan Yau

Yau is a visual journalist who relishes the challenge of turning raw numbers into stories anyone can understand. He holds a PhD in statistics from UCLA and says he wants to “make data available and useful to those who aren’t necessarily data experts.”

Yau is particularly adept at making sense of large swaths of data and breaking it down into easily digestible images. For example, he transforms data points showing change over time into graphics that allow readers to track both larger trends and their individual places within the data. Some of his projects include colorful illustrations of where your time goes when you have kids (spoiler alert: There’s a big drop in relaxing, playing games, and phone calls) and the age at which people get married and how it changes over time.

5. Al Shaw

Shaw uses data and interactive graphics to cover environmental issues, natural disasters and politics in sprawling, interactive pieces that you can spend ages exploring. Using a combination of mapping tools and engineering simulations, Shaw illustrates how local communities are impacted by the effects of climate change.

Shaw produced the Peabody Award-winning story “Hell and High Water,” which warned of the Gulf’s vulnerability to coastal storms a year before Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Another one of Shaw’s projects, “Losing Ground,” illustrated the erosion of Louisiana’s coast and won a Gold Medal from the Society for News Design. More recently, he co-created a guide to every permitted natural gas well in West Virginia. Shaw produced the guide as two cases against the natural gas industry were headed to the West Virginia supreme court, making the story especially salient.

6. Lena V. Groeger

Groeger is an investigative journalist who creates interactive graphics to discuss the real-world influence of design on understanding.

Groeger’s specialty is allowing readers to get data results that apply specifically to them. Thanks to her, anyone can look at the first public map of toxic waste sites in the US or determine if their local police department is inflating rape clearance rates.

7. Sisi Wei

A co-founder of Code With Me, a nonprofit workshop teaching journalists how to code, Sisi Wei leverages visual elements to elevate news stories. A talented coder, she builds interactive stories, apps and games to help readers glean a deeper understanding of a story.

Wei recently co-created “The Waiting Game,” which allowed readers to role play a character applying for asylum at the US border. It’s one thing for people to read about the situation at the border; it’s another for readers to envision themselves in the shoes of someone unable to secure asylum. Another of Wei’s visual stories, “Vital Signs,” gave readers the ability to research their healthcare provider and learn more about the disparity in coverage plans across various providers.

8. Eva Belmonte

Belmonte is the co-director and head of journalistic projects at Fundación Civio, a nonprofit based in Madrid. She spearheads the series Medicamentalia, a data-driven journalistic investigation into medicine prices with international implications.

Not only do Belmonte’s infographics help readers understand the complexities of the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare systems, she also provides audiences with tools to explore the data and take action. What makes Belmonte’s content so compelling is that readers are able to see how something like pharmaceutical contracts directly impact their wellbeing. Another example of Belmonte’s powerful storytelling is her investigative work on the excessive use of government pardons in Spain. Thanks to Belmonte, anyone can explore in detail just how many pardons were granted to individuals convicted of corruption charges.

9. Dada Lyndell

Lyndell is just 28 years old and already making waves. A data journalist from Russia, she turns numbers into stories with a social impact, even when it challenges the official narrative in Russia.

Lyndell says her main goal is “to make the invisible things transparent.” In one recent project, she compiled data from current local elections to illustrate where the ruling party, United Russia, was losing its electorate in certain regions. Lyndell specializes in gathering bulk data and transforming it into easy-to-access trends for the public, as exemplified by her work in examining the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Russia. Using a tile map, Lyndell illustrates HIV mortality rates in regions across Russia, where in some places the disease takes more lives than car accidents, suicides and alcohol.

Show, don’t tell

Stories have always been how we understand the world. A great narrative transforms hard data into something personally relevant to the reader and, when done right, can move audiences to action.

So if your own stories aren’t resonating as deeply with your audience, consider borrowing from the tenets of visual journalism to change the way you deliver your narratives. Instead of describing a situation with words, ask how you might use visuals, charts or interactive experiences to convey the same message. You may just discover the best possible way to tell your story doesn’t include words at all.

Katherine Kim

Katherine Kim

Katherine Kim is a content specialist at Sprout Social where she manages all things Adapt and supports larger content initiatives. When she's not at work, you can find Katherine cheering for the Dodgers or rewatching Avengers: Endgame (again).
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