The Media Today

Beware of the infographic

October 17, 2019

Alberto Cairo is on a mission to improve how journalists use charts. “Visualizations, charts can be incredibly powerful at exploring data,” he told me recently. They can also be powerful as tools for communicating information to news readers. “If you know how to use them well,” Cairo added. To his endless frustration, too many reporters do not. 

In his new book, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information, Cairo, who is the Knight Chair in visual journalism at the University of Miami, aims to dispel the myth of objectivity, and the air of truthfulness, that has been undeservedly awarded to numbers. A chart, he said, is a “visual argument” that is only as strong as the data on which it’s based. To tell a reliable story with a chart requires an understanding of its data—what it consists of, how it was gathered, who it might leave out. “We journalists are mediators,” Cairo explained. “Mediators between science and complexity, and the general public.” 

Throughout the book, Cairo breaks down common mistakes journalists make. First up: assuming that correlation indicates causation. To demonstrate why that’s wrong, Cairo produces a chart, using data from the World Health Organization and the United Nations, showing that cigarette consumption by country is positively correlated with life expectancy. “I have seen graphics like that described by journalists––including myself because most of these things are mistakes that I have made myself––describing this kind of chart as ‘the more we smoke, the longer we live,’” he told me. But in reality, he writes, “a chart only shows what it shows, and nothing else” (emphasis his).

Cairo then breaks the data down further, with fifteen more charts, grouping countries by income and region. Ultimately, he shows, the original chart cannot prove anything definitive––it can merely point to a pattern. His step-by-step instructions, at risk of becoming dry, are livened up with humor (a data point about the glam rock band Poison has no place in a chart about heavy metal, he argues). “I try to do it in a way that could be used as a template by translators, communicators, journalists, to do the same thing,” he told me.             

When journalists are wrong, Cairo warns, there can be serious repercussions. A town in danger of storm damage, for instance, may fail to take proper precautions because a broadcaster misinterpreted a graph. Just look at Hurricane Dorian projections: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration relies on a graphic––called the cone of uncertainty––to explain potential paths for major storms and, during Dorian coverage, many reporters interpreted the cone graphic as showing the entirety of the storm’s wrath. That left out a lot of possibilities. “I have seen TV newscasters explaining this map wrong and it drives me crazy,” Cairo said. “Like saying, ‘Oh you’re outside of the cone, you may not be in danger.’ Well that’s actually not true.”

Cairo doesn’t want to put journalists off charts, and he has ideas about how to produce them effectively. When news outlets design their own graphics, Cairo suggests, they should introduce a “me-layer” into the design. Why was the New York Timesdialect map so popular? “Because people see themselves in the data,” he writes. “And they see their families in the data, and they can compare the way they talk with how other people talk.” 

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Perhaps most important, Cairo writes, reporters shouldn’t assume that visuals serve as a substitute for words. Sometimes, a lengthy explanation is what’s required. At the same time, when reporters are trying to make a point, they need to just spit it out: “If you really want to emphasize something, emphasize it,” he said. “So people will not miss it. If there’s a particular pattern, or a particular data point or a particular fact that should not be missed, just show it.”

And when all else fails, ask a data scientist. “You need to basically give them whatever it is that you’re writing,” Cairo advised, “and very openly say, ‘please destroy it.’” 

Below, more on Cairo and how journalists use visual data:

  • A chart with dubious political categorizations of media outlets, and reportedly being taught in media literacy classes, spread around the internet this week. Good news: you can ignore it. “The main reason this chart is so deceptive,” Cairo writes on his blog, “is that it compares things that aren’t comparable. Come on, Breitbart or The Federalist rags at the same level of ‘bias’ as Vox? The Washington Examiner at the same level as NPR? Those aren’t equal. Neither in terms of trustworthiness, nor in terms of ideological bias.” 
  • “His book reminds readers not to infer too much from a chart, especially when it shows them what they already wanted to see,” The Economist writes in a review of Cairo’s book, noting that he has sent a copy to the White House.
  • ICYMI: CJR hosted a series of Q&As with visual journalists who work with data, including Quartz’s David Yanofsky and ProPublica’s Lena Groeger

Other notable stories:

  • The Guardian shared updates to its style guide, featuring six language changes to better cover the environment, including a preference for “climate crisis” or “emergency” over “climate change.” The modifications are intended to be more scientifically precise and to properly convey the severity of the crisis. The Guardian is CJR’s lead media partner in the Covering Climate Now initiative; you can read the work produced as a result of the project here.
  • As the Gannett-GateHouse merger continues to take shape, executives plan to pivot away from print editions of USA Today, Poynter reports. Instead, Gannett (as the company will be known once it’s fully merged) will focus on bolstering its digital marketing. “‘Digital transformation’ has been often promised and rarely delivered many times over at Gannett––and at other chains,” Poynter’s Rick Edmonds writes.
  • The Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists voiced their support for the unionization effort from the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald. The newspaper is owned by McClatchy. The Miami Herald publisher and executive editor, Mindy Marqués González, has been unwilling to voluntarily recognize the union, One Herald Guild. Standing with the union “is an abnormal step,” Florida SPJ’s letter of support reads. “The National Society of Professional Journalists has not taken a stance on unions despite repeated opportunities, and we were unable to find any local chapters that have done so. But the SPJ Florida leadership feels strongly that it is our duty to protect and support journalists, and this is one way to do it.”
  • Sky News, a British television news station, is launching a Brexit-free news channel, according to the Press Gazette. The channel was developed in response to a YouGov survey that found that a third of British news consumers were avoiding the news––71 percent of whom cited exhaustion from Brexit coverage as their rationale. Sky News won’t avoid Brexit coverage altogether, but it give news consumers an option to focus their attention on other “hard-hitting, original” stories, Sky News head John Ryley told the Press Gazette.
  • Charleston City Paper, the popular South Carolina alt-weekly, was sold to a pair of new owners on Wednesday: Ed Bell and Andy Brack. They’re two local businessmen who vowed to maintain the paper’s “legacy of publishing vibrant, incisive local news and information,” City Paper reports. The founding editors will stay on as consultants. Bell and Brack already have ties to Southern journalism; Bell co-owns Garden & Gun magazine, while Brack is the publisher of an online local news site called Statehouse Report and writes a column for City Paper.
  • After more than a year of negotiations, the Los Angeles Times reached a tentative labor agreement with the LA Times Guild, which represents about 475 journalists. A 2018 vote to form a union set a path for the paper’s return to local ownership from corporate ownership. Guild members still have to ratify the agreement in a vote expected for the end of the month, with a potential agreement slated to take effect in November. The new agreement includes pay raises, family leave, severance pay, intellectual property rights, and more. “When the final documents were signed…the room burst into applause, cameras clicked and champagne soon flowed,” the Times reported.
Savannah Jacobson is a contributor to CJR.