How charts changed my idea of writing

The Menell Media Exchange conference provides an opportunity for journalists to share information and learn from each other. The MMX is a project from Duke University and was held at the Maslow Hotel in Johannesburg.

An exciting program on Friday, 19 August, showed once again how passionate we are about anything to do with Journalism. Out of all the conference sessions, the one I particularly enjoyed was the “Telling stories with data” session lead by Laura Grant, an independent media consultant. I found it interesting in many factors. And as Grant quoted Cairo:

“We use graphs and maps because they help us to see the truth in the data.”

-Alberto Cairo

And then it hit me; all those stories I’ve written about numbers, amounts and percentages could have worked and looked much better with a graph. I also learned that putting numbers in a graph can make it much easier for me to see what the results are. Sometimes we write something, but you don’t “see” it in your mind nor understand it. And how can you explain it to your reader if you do not understand it yourself?

Let’s take the petrol price as an example, a price that fluctuated profoundly in the past year. If I saw the amounts in the form of a graph, I would’ve seen the fluctuation and illustrated it better. Another example is the exchange rate of the rand; which swayed more than the cast of Dirty Dancing. Speaking about dirty, the exchange rate was quite a ballerina when President Zuma had a few Minister of Finances in only one week. And I must say that a graph of this year’s exchange rate would be quite interesting.

Grant also focussed on an extreme presentation method. Giving us tips and tricks and even questions to ask ourselves when we design a graph. Questions like “is there a comparison?”, “which composition would look best?”, “what is the distribution?” and lastly “is there a relationship in the data?”

As a designer myself, she spoke of a few programs I know and also introduced me to other alternatives. Google Sheets and Datawrapper being my favourite data programs to work with were also mentioned, including Cloud Highcharts, Pictochart, Infogram and more.

Allister Otter, a friend in the media of Grant, spoke about maps and how it can be used for a lot of news stories, even if you just want to see a visual to describe it better to the reader. Otter used the elections as an example, showing how easy it is to make a map if you have the correct information. Google my Maps and Batch Geo were some of his favourite programs to use.

Another much-loved saying that we enjoyed was the fact that pie charts are a total no go, but if you use them, make sure it adds up to a 100. Our honours class and I think our lecturers will agree that although we learned a lot, our favourite part of the conference, was the amazing food.

Leave a Reply