Visualizing the News

In communications design, the visualization of data and complex processes combines the best of art and information architecture. Data visualizations are not only useful for simplifying complex information, but they can be beautiful, engaging, and creative. Illustrative graphics have the power to take you places not readily accessible to photographers. Ultimately, information graphics are capable of explaining some events and processes in ways that words alone cannot touch. Information graphics can stand alone or supplement other story forms. And in the multimedia world, there are a significant number of possibilities for how journalistic visual information is presented. Thus, all multimedia journalists should be well versed in the types of information graphics available and how they can be used to enhance storytelling.

Online, maps, charts, and diagrams are dramatically enhanced by the Web’s multimedia potential. Now, the ability to animate adds a level of realism to graphics that show step-by-step processes or how things work. And the potential for interactivity allows us to experiment with new storytelling strategies that draw on gaming and other digital formats. Online we can also combine other media, such as audio and video, with our graphics. Thus, multimedia graphics are quickly becoming a popular method of storytelling because they offer a truer depiction of events or processes.

This chapter explores information graphics from two perspectives. First, regardless of publication format, print or digital, information graphics are generally broken into three categories: charts, maps, and diagrams. Second, as charts, maps, and diagrams migrate to the Web, the potential for animation, nonlinear navigation, enhanced interactivity, and multimedia combinations has created new classifications: instructives, simulations, narratives, journalistic games, and data visualizations. So, we will expand the concept of information graphics beyond the simple, print-centric definitions to more complex multimedia forms.

Topics Covered

Mapping the news
Maps are the most common types of information graphics. They serve a variety of purposes in communication design, such as forecasting the weather, locating an event, or geographically plotting statistical information.

Speaking to the eyes
Charts are capable of presenting a considerable amount of statistical data in a relatively small amount of space. The nature of the information at hand will dictate which type of graphic should be used. And what attracts the eye may not engage the brain. So to be effective, charts must be clear and precise, accurate and consistent.

Illustrating the news
Diagrams take the audience places that cameras or reporters cannot. They show how something happened, the process by which something occurs, or the inner workings of both animate and inanimate objects. Diagrams combine substantial text with detailed illustrations to dissect the important parts of objects or chronicle a chain of events.

Graphics in motion
As a graphic migrates to the Web, the potential for animation and interactivity fundamentally change structure and navigation. Web graphics go a step further than print graphics by providing a more immersive user experience. They can simulate real world experiences and employ game strategies. And they can implement sound and animation to enrich understanding and better reflect reality.

Planning multimedia graphics
Planning online graphics not only includes considering which type of graphic is most appropriate for a particular story, but also a clear understanding of the user experience. Storyboarding is common in other forms of live motion storytelling, such as film and television, and a well-directed storyboard can lead to a clear and tightly edited information graphic.

Data visualization
The sheer amount of data that becomes publicly available every day is staggering. Federal, state and local governments are sharing results from studies, surveys, elections and more. All this data has potential for telling important stories.

Where we’re going
Interactive visual storytelling tools are maturing very quickly. They make it easier to create sophisticated graphics with minimum of effort and programming. And increasingly, they are open source and free.