Telling news with graphics and extending your shelf-life as a graphic journalist

It’s a bad time to work in newspapers. Papers are downsizing and lots of people are either being kicked out or opting to leave of their own accord. Design departments have been hit especially hard. Designers should consider positioning themselves so that they are less expendable. They should also keep in mind that their work is journalism and has to adhere to the same journalistic principles as written stories. There is no warranty though! So don’t come back complaining to me if – and when – you’re made redundant.

A short version of this article was presented at the QVED/QVIG conference in Munich on 27 February 2016. The event was part of the larger Munich Creative Business Week 2016 (MCBW)


First of all, I have to mention that this article was inspired by Francesco Franchi’s presentation at the QVED conference on 25 February. He talked about how this is a good time to work in magazines, infographics, and visualisation. I am sure this is true, but from the perspective of a traditional newspaper graphic journalist the situation looks completely different.

It is a very bad time to work in newspapers. Print paper readership continues to plummet in the Western countries. The online versions are doing better and better, but they still struggle to make up for the print losses. Many newspaper editors and executives seem to think that graphics are less important in the online world. So when papers downsize the designers are at the top of the list for cuts.

Of course, graphics can be used in many different ways to tell stories and visualise news. One approach is where whole pages or spreads are turned into beautiful visual landscapes, as in the works of Franchi. This might work for magazines or weekly supplements but is less feasible for daily editions where time and space are always limited. Nothing prevents one from trying something similar there too, but often the feasible option is the traditional text + graphics approach.

However, graphics in news stories should not simply repeat information which is already told in the text. Instead the text and graphics should work together to tell the story. Fine. This has been stated many times in several books already, but how do you do this in practice?

qvig-pres02bOne way is to use graphics to explain some of the key facts of the story. Basic news stories are trying to explain ‘what happened’ and journalists are trained to do this with the 5 Ws and 1 H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?1 Instead of using text, these crucial facts can also be explained with graphics. For example, ‘where’ can be answered with a map, and ‘how’ is often actually more easily shown with a illustration or diagram than described with text.

qvig-pres03Basic news stories often employ the inverted pyramid model.2 This means that the most important facts of the story, like the answers to the 5Ws and 1H, are dealt with in the very beginning of the story. This is then followed by important but less crucial information. The end of the story contains information that is interesting and adds depth to the story but can also be cut out in editing if there is, for example, not enough space on the page. If the graphics takes on the role of explaining some of the 5Ws and 1H the text is then freed to pursue other areas. Like the emotional and human interest aspects. As journalists often enjoy writing about these things, instead of just reporting dry facts, this solution might win them to your side. At the same time, this way the graphics are not just disposable add-ons, but an essential part of the journalistic core of the story.

So one of the key things is to make sure the graphics are meaningful to the story. You should remember that not all things can or should be told with graphics. As Nigel Holmes explained in his opening presentation at the QVIG 2016, this is sometimes forgotten in today’s world where it has become fashionable to create visualisations out of big data sets. While the results can be aesthetically pleasing, many of them lack the editing needed to make them truly meaningful. ‘We should not be dazzled by data’, as Nigel put it.3

qvig-pres04Just because you have data which you can shape into a graphic does not guarantee meaning. The result can be information, in the technical sense of the word, but that is different from information which is meaningful to human readers and adds value to the news story. Many graphic forms are good at telling about change over time. But using a graph to show that there has not been much change does not really make sense. Unfortunately, every now and then you see this type of meaningless graphs published in news stories. The slide shows my own drawing, but is based on an actual graph used in the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat a few years ago. In this type of case it might have been better to just use text to describe things. If you want an extra element on the page, you can always use a factbox.4

It can be hard to imagine how the graph will look from just looking at the number data. This means that sometimes you have to create the graph first and only then decide what to do. You have to be prepared to scrap your own work sometimes, regardless of how many hours you have put into it. Those hours do not add any value to the reader. Instead of thinking about your wasted hours, think about how having meaningless graphs in the news will simply remind the chief editor and executives about how sacking you will not really hurt the stories anyway.

Sometimes the problem is that a writer demands a relatively meaningless graphic. And when they realise this, that is when things can truly get ugly. Here is an example based on my own work history.

qvig-pres05The polling figures of political parties or candidates can sometimes be very close to each other. So much so, that the differences hardly go beyond the margin of error.5 When there finally is a slightly bigger change the writers, who have been following the campaign for months, might start going all mad.6 They want you to show the amazing new developments in a full page graph which also shows the past six months so the readers will see how momentous this is. And then you do the graph and… it does not really look like much. Again it is the case of graphics being better at showing change.

This is when the reporter will turn to you and ask that ‘can you… somehow… jazz it up… like make the last jump in the graph look bigger?’ This is when you need to stand your ground. Because now the question is no longer about a harmless boring graphic but about your journalistic integrity. If the situation escalates into a shouting match, you might be able to draw upon guidelines for journalists, which are usually formulated by the local journalist association or union. For example, the Finnish Guidelines for journalists state that:

The journalist is entitled to refuse assignments that conflict with the law, his/her personal convictions or good journalistic practice.

qvig-pres08So you need to adopt a journalistic mindset if you do not already have one. That means always keeping in mind questions of objectivity, non-partisanship, etc. in your graphic work. This can be a problem especially for people coming from design schools, where journalism usually is not included in the curricula. They might have read something like Bertin’s famous book7 where he argues that graphics are monosemic, in other words, having only one meaning. As design theory teaching is sometimes patchy, the designers might have missed the texts arguing the opposite8 and continue believing in Bertin. As Barnhurst writes, Bertin is mistaken:

His semiotics seems to embrace the fallacy that because numbers are monosemic, their two-dimensional or visual display must also be so.9

Graphics are not monosemic. They always have a rhetorical quality in addition to their basic information content. Kostelnick argues that it is only because we have grown so familiar with the basic graphs that we do not recognise their rhetorical qualities.10 Even the most mundane weather map can be seen as perpetuating an artificial political entity such as the nation state. Weather maps can be seen rhetorically similar to how regional journalism – especially when dealing with sports – has a tendency to root for the ‘local heroes’.

In many cases there is not much the designer can do about the rhetorical qualities of graphics. But the issue should be acknowledged and kept in mind. The same affects all journalism, where it has long been accepted that true objectivity is an unreachable ideal.11 But whereas writers continue to debate objectivity, designers often seem to be naively oblivious to the the whole issue. Engaging in debates about what journalism and objectivity is might also help to legitimise designers as ‘proper journalists’ in the eyes of their writer colleagues and editors.

qvig-pres09Creators of graphics should position themselves primarily as journalists and not as designers. This is why many of us (like myself) prefer terms such as graphic journalist. This should also be reflected in the work. Graphic journalists should participate in the complete journalistic process from the beginning to end. I have borrowed and adapted a slide from Franchi who showed us a process where a writer is engaged in the beginning of the work and then an illustrator finishes the job. He also mentioned that in his work it is only the information designer whose role lasts through the whole process. Here is an important point from the perspective of career stability. As the illustrator is only the final ‘tool’ that produces the visuals they can be relatively easily replaced with another illustrator. Perhaps with someone cheaper. Perhaps their role can even outsourced. So, in brief, do not be just an illustrator. Be someone who cannot be so easily outsourced.

qvig-pres10So what should a graphic journalist be then? We can speak of information designers as Franchi did. I personally prefer to use the term transformer. This comes from the Isotype movement and has been explained well by Macdonald-Ross & Waller.12 Basically, a transformer is a person who takes complex information and makes it accessible to the audience. A writer asks ‘how do I best present this with text’. A designer or illustrator asks ‘how do I best present this with graphics’. But a transformer asks ‘what is the best way to present this’, always choosing the best possible format for each type of information, and thus making it easily understandable. And that is the core of all journalism. Not writing, not drawing, not photographing. It is about explaining things to the audience.

  1. McKane, A. (2006) News Writing. Sage, London. []
  2. McKane, A. (2006) News Writing. Sage, London. []
  3. paraphrased []
  4. For example, if you want to add more ‘visual energy’ to the page. See my thesis: Clothing the paper : On the state of newspaper design, redesigns, and art directors’ perspectives in contemporary quality and popular newspapers. University of Reading, 2015. []
  5. A related and even bigger problem is when writers make major stories about change in polling numbers even when the differences are within the margin of error. But I will leave that topic for another time. []
  6. Finnish journalists joke about reporters being ‘in heat’ or having the ‘newsheat’. []
  7. Bertin, J. (1983) Semiology of Graphics. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin. []
  8. E.g. Kinross, R. (1985) The rhetoric of neutrality. Design Issues, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 18–30; Kostelnick, C. & Hassett, M. (2003) Shaping Information : The rhetoric of visual conventions. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. []
  9. Barnhurst, K.G. (1994) Seeing the Newspaper. St. Martins Press, New York, p. 66. []
  10. Kostelnick, C. (2004) Melting-Pot Ideology, Modernist Aesthetics, and the Emergence of Graphical Conventions: The statistical atlases of the United States, 1874–1925. In Defining Visual Rhetorics, (Eds. Hill, C.A. & Helmers, M.), Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, New Jersey, pp. 215–242. []
  11. E.g. Allan, S. (2010/1999) News Culture. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill & Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 27–47. []
  12. Macdonald-Ross, M. & Waller, R. (1976) The transformer. Penrose Annual, vol. 69, no. 1. Reprinted with a modifications as Macdonald-Ross, M. & Waller, R. (2000) The transformer revisited. Information Design Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 177–193. []

Charts instead of tables please

When you are trying to get a point across using numbers, show us the point, don’t make us calculate and compare! Again it’s time to talk about the Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Yet another great reading experience which suffers from flaws in the way information is presented visually. Brian McNair’s book News and Journalism in the UK has provided me a sober and easy starting point to the inner life of British journalism.

I especially enjoyed the way McNair introduces the various sociological schools of journalism research. I think that chapter would benefit not only journalism students but also generally all students of design or communication etc. who are trying to wrap their heads around concepts like Marxist media criticism, social construction of reality, the dumbing-down of culture and so on.

My only problem lies in the tables the book contains. The 4th edition (Routledge, 2003) that I got from my library has 8 tables and I think all of them could have been made into bar charts. Or at least turn the most important numbers in them to charts. And from what I can see from the Amazon preview, the problem remains in the 5th edition.

Some of the information is so simple, that the tables are pretty sufficient. Like the one on newspaper ownership (image below). It’s ordered mostly from the biggest to the smallest and the numbers are relatively small and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, adding a chart would make it even better.

But where I really noticed the problem was where McNair makes a point through comparing numbers in a table. It’s not a major point in the book, and if you’re feeling bored you can just skip the table take McNair’s word for it. He talks about how John Birt affected BBC’s news production and popularity in the nineties:

In terms of ratings ‘Birtian’ journalism certainly appeared to make a positive impact on the British viewing public. By late 1989, for example, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News was on occasion recording audiences of 12 million, as compared to 6 million for ITN’s News at Ten, a pattern of dominance that was repeated across the news schedule, though not usually in such stark form (see Table 5.1.). (page 107)

So, check out the table yourself (below). See how easy it is to see how the “pattern of dominance is repeated across the schedule”.

Did you get it immediately? I didn’t. Yes, of course I did get it in time. But it’s such an easy point, that when I finally did, I felt kind of cheated or bothered. “Why did I have to spend so much time and effort on such an elementary point?!” How much time did you spend on it?

Perhaps you glanced it quickly hoping to return to the text. But when it didn’t make sense immediately, you had to devote a few more glances to it. And perhaps you also had to do a kind of mental switch from understanding text, contexts and the society, to understanding abstract numbers.

There are several ways you can turn that table into a chart. The solution depends on what one wishes to emphasise, space & color constraints etc. I thought that the point was to show that the BBC’s programmes were dominating in all the different time slots, such as main news, early evening news, midday news and so on. Below you can see one solution I might propose. This version omits the precise numbers but who needs them anyway? What the reader needs here is the point that BBC’s news programmes are doing better than ITN’s, and he or she can still approximate the numbers from the bars if necessary.1

This should be in McNair 2003, page 107

Okay, in this particular case “much time and effort wasted” is relative and actually not that much. It’s not like you’re trying to understand Wittgenstein or the national budget. We are talking about few glances, a handful of seconds.

Never mind the actual time it took in seconds. What I’m talking about is that feeling you get. That even if it was not really a big effort, you are annoyed that you had to do a little more than you felt was justified or necessary.

And that’s the key point in all design. Think about badly designed handles, mugs, chairs, doors, windows. Whatever. It might be an insignificant door knob or other invaluable mundane object. But you are reminded of its clumsiness each time you touch it. It might slightly irritate you each time. Perhaps several times every day.2

And that clumsiness and irritation drags your thoughts from whatever important thing you had in your mind – your job, your children, your ongoing relationship crisis, your happiness – demanding your attention to the silly mundane object.

Design is about minimising the effort of the user. Making the user feel comfortable. That’s what some fields of design call usability, ergonomics, etc. And here we can call it information design.3

In a book the designer is bound to a two-dimensional surface. But he or she still has a vast amount of resources which can be used to maximise the usability of the page and thus minimising the effort and irritation of the reader.4

  1. I would also like to change the headline, but here I’ve kept the original one for consistency. I mean, who’s interested in “figures”?! The variable is the “audience” or “viewers”. The figures themselves are just abstract entities used to express their quantity. []
  2. This is why the difference between pc:s and Macs & iPads is so significant. If I have to use a computer constantly it should be as painless as possible, and not raise my blood pressure every 30 minutes. []
  3. Some might call it graphic design, but I’m not using it because all too often that seems to lead to worsening the usability because it tries to be expressive or artistic. Information design always aims to maximise the usability and clarity. []
  4. And don’t try saying that “maybe they didn’t have a designer”. It’s a book you’re holding. How do you think it materialised. Out of thin air? []