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A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post posted a fascinating article about our field:
Gets your attention, doesn’t it?
The author — who happens to be the head of communications for Canva, a maker of free online data visualization software — explains why today’s journalists really need, y’know, free online data visualization software. He uses visual aids — presumably created by the software he peddles — to show why we need to reach out to social media…
…what percentage of journalists use various social media…
…and the retention rate of visual information vs. good ol’ prose alone.
There’s just one little problem with all these graphics. And I’m hoping you spotted it right away.
They’re not accurate at all. In fact, they’re laughably incorrect.
Visual journalist John Telford recently blogged about the Huffington Post story, going into great detail about picking it apart each piece.
For example, that bubble chart I just showed you. John writes:
Notice anything wrong with the proportions of the bubbles relative to each other?
The most obvious issues are that the 16% and 14% orange bubbles are way off compared to the 30% gray bubble. However, just about all the proportions for every bubble are off to some degree. Let’s take a look at what the chart would look like if the proportions were correct.
When the scale is off as badly as this, you lose credibility. People are more skeptical today than ever before, and if they catch what could simply be an innocent mistake but they perceive it as an intentional misrepresentation of the facts because you have an agenda to push, you’ve lost them.
Bubble charts have become extremely popular over the last few years, but they’re rarely the best choice to allow for easy comprehension (as is often true for most forms of circular charts). It’s almost always better to use a bar chart as they’re more easily understood and make for easier comparisons between categories.
Bubble charts are so easy to screw up. This is just what we need: A tool to help us screw them up more efficiently than ever before. Sigh.
John also has harsh words for the third example at the top of this post:
I’m not even sure what kind of chart it’s supposed to be exactly. However, since the author went to all the trouble to attach the data points to the arrow, it would have been good to use proper proportions to space the data points evenly.
…A much better solution would have been to use the humble bar chart:
Wow! Now there’s an impressive looking statistic displayed in a chart that holds some impact and meaning.
Excellent analysis by John. Read his entire blog post here.
A former artist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, John now runs a freelance infographics and design business based in Florida. Find his web site here.
Several years ago, I took issue with Dipity, a free tool that gave journalists a way of creating illustrated interactive timelines. Poynter had written about that tool in glowing terms. Find that blog post here.
Hey, free tools can be a great way of helping visual journalists make ends meet when you have zero resources and zero budget. But make sure you check back over the results those tools give you — just like you’d check back over anything you write. Don’t assume the developers of these tools know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to content going out via your site, your feed or under your byline.