Let Me Help: Use Data to Connect with Readers

Journalism connects people with information, and data storytelling connects narratives to individuals. The former is what kept me a newspaper subscriber for three years, something I explore in this post  on “lock-in” and resistance to adapt to new technologies. The latter is illustrated in examples such as the Washington Post’s Fiscal Cliff calculator and the site Syria Deeply. Why is engagement through, for example, interactive graphics and participatory journalism important? What does “engagement” even mean?

Poynter’s Matt Thompson included it in the “Buzzwurgatory,” a collection of those vague terms we put in headlines so the Google bots will find our page. Engagement may euphemistically refer to attracting more readers, he writes, but it should focus on incorporating the audience into our work. This helps journalists ensure they’re covering the “right” stories. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently tweeted a link to a 1996 James Fallows piece, “Why Americans Hate the Media.” Fallows describes how journalists consistently focus on the political horse race at the expense of digging into the policy questions that actually impact individuals. He writes:

“When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars.”

Data storytelling does that. The tools that exist to display information, from data visualizations to interactive databases to geocoded maps, encourage readers to explore. Take the Chicago Tribune’s Illinois School Report Card database, which enables readers to filter data by school name or address and also to examine trends among the whole system. Articles offer context to the data. The Guardian’s Datastore encourages Flickr users to submit photos of their own mashups that use Datablog information. And Syria Deeply calls on the audience to contribute information about a conflict that few journalists can access:

“Single-topic platforms, such as Syria Deeply, are not made up of a team of journalists and editors reporting to a passive audience. Instead, they embrace participatory journalism in which civilian journalists can collaborate and contribute to the news process with personal stories and firsthand accounts. As a platform, we are then able to aggregate and curate the most useful content on that topic into one space.”

Nonprofit organizations also find data storytelling a helpful tool to evaluate their services and ensure their funding provides the most benefit for people. GlobalGiving collects stories from individuals in Kenya and Uganda, feeds them into a software called Sensemaker, and derives insights that improve its operation and ultimately help the organization better accomplish its mission.

Through a course in online communities, I’m learning the principles behind how people behave and connect online. Understanding this helps data storytellers promote engagement, in the fullest sense of the word.

What are the most engaging examples of data storytelling you’ve seen lately? Write a comment and let everyone know.


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