When Telling Data-Driven Stories, Let Readers Ask Questions, Too

The push for open data has prompted the release of countless datasets. But the raw data alone can’t adequately serve the public. After all, it’s hard to imagine the average person investing the time—or possessing the skills—to make meaningful sense of a massive spreadsheet.

That’s where the media comes in. Whenever possible, journalists should provide a way for every reader to explore the data and gain insights. Forget linking to massive spreadsheets, and keep in mind that even static graphs have their limitations. Instead, present your data in a rich, intuitive and interactive format. Allow readers to go beyond the questions you asked in your piece to ask and answer their own.


Why should journalists go through the trouble of fostering data exploration? After all, it may seem counter to the journalist’s traditional role of explaining complex issues through a tightly-edited set of facts and perspectives.

Alberto Cairo on YouTubeThe answer is simple, according to Alberto Cairo, a journalism professor at the University of Miami: “That’s what journalists do: make relevant information available to people who need it, or to communities who need it.”

Data, especially big data, can mean different things to different people. A graph that benefits the majority may not be significant to the minority, and vice versa. And not everyone has the tools or the skills to go looking for answers on their own.

Given the chance, the reader will find what Cairo calls “the me factor.” The reader learns how he or she fits into the bigger picture. And as a result, the story becomes more relatable. (Chad Skelton shared his insights on this idea in a previous piece.)

Readers find value in this form of self-discovery, according to Cairo, who explores this topic in his upcoming book, “The Truthful Art.” Consider the fact that The New York Times’ most popular piece in all of 2014 wasn’t a news story but rather an interactive quiz on regional U.S. dialects. The Times also recently updated its 2007 rent vs. own calculator due to its lasting popularity.


So how can you empower readers to dig into the data without any data skills? Here are a few tips to help you get started . . .  Read the rest of the article at MediaShift.

Skip to toolbar