While journalists have long made use of data in breaking news and investigative reporting, media outlets are increasingly using data visualization as a tool to convey information to the public. Compelling graphics not only make the fact-finding aspects of journalism more transparent, they are also an essential part of the investigative process. Data journalists in particular rely heavily on exploratory data analysis.
In this panel discussion, we heard from three data journalists who have used analytics to shed light on some of the most important issues of our time: Anna Flagg’s investigation of the spurious connection between immigration and crime for The Marshall Project; Andrew Ba Tran’s opioid crisis reporting for The Washington Post; and Northeastern University’s Aleszu Bajak’s work on the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.
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“Good charts enable good conversations,” Alberto Cairo says. “Bad charts – or charts that are misinterpreted – hinder those conversations.”
It’s been said – and said again – that “every picture tells a story.” That “a picture is worth a thousand words,” that “seeing is believing.” But today at JMP Discovery Summit, Alberto Cairo – consultant, designer and Professor of Visual Journalism at the University of Miami – asks us to think again about those familiar adages.
Pictures, he says, can expand our perceptions, yes; but they can just as often hide more than they reveal. When viewers make inferences – or overlook missing information – they can easily come to an incorrect understanding of what the data really shows. Statistical thought experiments like Simpson’s paradox and the ecological inference fallacy evince this gap between appearance and reality.
“Good charts enable good conversations,” Cairo says. “Bad charts – or charts that are misinterpreted – hinder those conversations.” And in a world where data visualization is becoming increasingly ubiquitous as a way of communicating ideas, we all have a responsibility to become better informed readers.
Yes, that’s right: we have the responsibility, he says. The onus falls to consumers of visual media to interrogate and contextualize our sources – just as we might evaluate the potential biases of a piece of written journalism. Readers shouldn’t trust a chart to present data in a way that tells the full story. Nor should they trust themselves to interpret a chart correctly upon cursory glance alone.
But fair warnings aside, charts are important. They’re a part of our culture. They’re a powerful tool and even, perhaps, an art form. And that’s why Cairo is arming us with a checklist of questions to ask ourselves when separating the fact from the fallacy. Below, Alberto Cairo’s failsafe four-step checklist for next-level chart interpretation.
Is the data represented accurately?
Does the graphic include a sufficient amount of data?
Is uncertainty relevant? If so, is it revealed in a way that can be easily interpreted?
Are you reading too much into the graphic?
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Psychology suggests that we make our own luck by the way we think and behave, says Richard Wiseman. Luck: that elusive twist of fate that strikes just at the right time, catapulting the privileged few to fame or fortune.
The Powerball winners. The hole-in-one hitters. The soulmates who find each other early in life.
As he told a captivated audience at Discovery Summit 2017, Richard Wiseman counts himself among the lucky. But Wiseman’s luck is no accident.
It’s the result of a calculated effort, a combination of intentional behavioral and perception shifts, with a little magical sleight of hand.
Luck might be just another illusion after all
Though Wiseman is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, he began his career as a plier of illusion. Wiseman was once a professional magician, and a rather good one at that. But he says the leap from magic to a career in psychology is not as puzzling as you might expect.
Magic is all about observing human nature and acting accordingly. Successful magicians direct an audience’s attention away from where the coin – or scarf or rabbit – is being held. Good observers will try to detect that diversion, but Wiseman says we’re often not able to overcome the part of the brain that sees the illusion. Even when we’re expecting to be fooled, an illusion can be mighty convincing.
Like magic, luck is all about observation. Psychology suggests that we make our own luck by the way we think and behave. This is Wiseman’s central argument. Once we understand that luck is a self-imposed illusion, we can begin to improve our luck by implementing a few basic lifestyle changes.
This, Wiseman says, isn’t magic or self-help. It’s science backed by data.
Want to change your stars? Try these 5 things
Be observant. Recognize luck when it arrives. Keep a luck diary. Write down one positive event or thought each day: gratitude for friends, family, professional success. Or list negative events or situations averted. Over time, you’ll begin to notice the luck you already have.
Stray from your routine. Introduce some variation to your daily habits. Be flexible and open-minded about change. That way, when opportunity strikes you’ll be ready.
Visualize processes, not outcomes. Visualization works, but only when you focus on the journey. When your eye is on the prize, you run the risk of overlooking lucky situations.
Get more sleep. It’s universally sound advice: Sleep more and sleep better. Nothing advantageous ever came from sleep deprivation.
Be proactive. Too much planning can stifle creativity, so don’t form a committee. Dive in and get your hands dirty. Start building things.
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