Making Data Comprehensible


Understanding how to analyze and interpret data may come easy to a trained data journalist. However, it can prove quite challenging to the average person, who has rather limited abilities in numeracy (at least in the United States). The average person will often not be familiar with the terminology for a particular statistical analysis, or even understand how to make sense of a result or how to connect the results from different analyses.

Thus, knowing how to analyze data is only half the battle for a data journalist. The second half is making data comprehensible for a non-specialized audience.

Focusing on What Matters

One key thing journalists bring to the table in the journalism-data relationship is the ability to identify what is most interesting about some dataset or analysis.

Datasets will often include many different variables about a large number of units of observation. Therefore, they can contain a large amount of interesting data points and trends. A scientific or industry report may similarly detail several findings of note. However, a journalist rarely has the space in a short story or broadcast segment to go into all of those potential findings.

Instead, your task as a journalist is to narrow things down to just a few results, relationships, or values that are especially interesting. Put another way, focus on just a few things and enrich them with detail, anecdotes, and context.

For example, the most interesting thing in a government report about crime in a city might be the increase in a few particular types of crimes. Rather than detailing the levels of all types of crime, focus just on the crimes that have increased at a disproportionate rate. (Conversely, maybe the story is that crime has generally remained flat over that period of time. If that’s the more important or representative story, focus on that.)

Alternatively, perhaps the most interesting thing in a dataset about crime is a single outlier. That is, maybe regional crime has stayed flat, with the exception of one particular city, which has seen a shocking increase in crime. How far is that outlier from the average? Why might that be the case? What is so unique about that outlier?

In deciding “what matters,” it is crucial that you keep your audience in mind. You may encounter a report or dataset that includes data for schools all around the country, but your audience will likely care most about how their local schools are faring. It might make sense to just focus on those few local schools, and perhaps even on just a few different measures that you consider to be most important in representing how those schools are faring.

Simplify Language and Analyses

When a journalist produces a regular news story for a typical outlet, they are usually producing it for someone with little more than a high-school education. The journalist will thus typically use short, declarative sentences and avoid jargon or esoteric language. Incorporating quantitative information into a story is no different. Chances are your audience will know little about regression analyses, or even fully understand what a statistical correlation entails.

Your job as a journalist is thus to simplify, simplify, and simplify in order to make sure your story can be understood by most adults. You can do this by including examples throughout the story to make the quantitative information easier to comprehend. For example, a massive devaluation of a foreign currency can sometimes be expressed in a more comprehensible way by describing how many hours a person would have to work at a minimum wage job in that foreign place in order to afford a cheese pizza or a cup of coffee.

Additionally, you should only include the methodological and statistical details that are essential to understanding a story, and express those details in an accessible way — even if it comes at some expense to precision. If you want to include the nitty-gritty details, it is often best to include it as a sidebar or as a companion (separate) methodological piece.

The only caveat here is if you are producing content for an outlet that has a numerically savvy audience that expects greater depth. This includes niche outlets that cater to experts (e.g., doctors) or particularly knowledgeable audiences (e.g., baseball junkies). Then, you can talk about the more complex details of particular analyses and methods, and use jargon those audiences are likely to understand.

Interrogate the Causes or Implications

Journalism is more than presenting facts — or, in this case, numbers. It is about helping individuals make sense of some phenomenon by showing them how the dots are connected.

When producing your story, ask yourself: How does this story help the audience better understand the issue? What does your reporting add to what’s already out there?

You can make your story insightful by focusing on the causes behind a trend identified in an industry report, or by focusing on the implications of your original data analysis. What might be driving the identified phenomenon? How might that phenomenon of interest affect the audience, or the people living in their communities?

For example, if you come across data showing that sexual assault cases are becoming more frequent in a particular county, you can produce an important story. However, that story can be made more useful if you’re able to identify what might be behind that increase in sexual assault cases (e.g., there were budget cuts at many police departments in that county that year). Similarly, you could perhaps use the report to point to existing resources and services for helping people deal with sexual assault, or connect it to a bill that might be under consideration that would change the funding for counseling or violence prevention programs.

Use Examples Throughout

Numbers can feel rather abstract and faceless, and staring at a bunch of them can make even the most ardent data lover’s eyes glaze after a while. Indeed, as a former ruler of the Soviet Union reportedly quipped once: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

Great stories tend put a human face to the quantitative information in order to make it more relatable. This means using anecdotes and direct quotations from people who were affected by some issue or have intimate knowledge of that issue. Such anecdotes and quotes not only help break up the most informational parts of a story but they create opportunities to forge emotional connections with an audience.

It can often helpful to zoom in and out of stories by interchanging anecdotes and quantitative insights, such as by using an ‘accordion’ story structure. Quantitative information is often best used to illustrate the big picture and the trends; but it is often the human stories that help make the journalism compelling.

It is important to note that examples will sometimes come at the expense of analytic depth due to space constraints. For example, in order to make room for an anecdote, the journalist may need to cut some of the quantitative insights. This is a judgment call but it is important for journalists to remind themselves of the old adage: sometimes, less is more.

Visualize Information

The use of quantitative information in a story often lends itself nicely to the inclusion of data visualizations and tables alongside the narrative. In fact, humans are much better at finding patterns, relationships, and making sense of a large number of data points when such information is presented visually. This is especially the case when there is a stark contrast between things, and the audience can be shocked by just taking a quick glance at two visuals that show a clear disparity.

Visuals should not simply duplicate prose, though. Instead, visuals should complement narratives. A common way to do this is to tell and show. Tell your audiences what you believe to be the most important take-away quantitative insights through your prose and show that point through a compelling anecdote in the narrative (and an accompanying data visualization that shows the relevant pattern).

If you are integrating quantitative information from an industry or research report, there’s a good chance a visualization already exists. However, that visualization may be too sophisticated for a general audience — it was likely designed with a specialized audience in mind — and you may thus need to recreate it in a more accessible (and, oftentimes, more aesthetically pleasing) way.

Visualizations can also be used as asides to a story, via the use of sidebars and the like. Such spaces are reserved for information that is important and relevant, but that might be too tangential (and thus disruptive) to include in the middle of a story. Additionally, visuals and tables can be useful tools for opening up a dataset to audiences and allowing them to draw their own inferences. This can be accomplished by either creating an online front-end for the dataset (e.g., a searchable database) or by creating an interactive visualization that allows someone to explore all of the data points. Such aides allow you to have a highly-focused story, but still permit the audience to identify new relationships or story angles on their own.

Focus, Simplify, Interrogate, Exemplify, and Visualize

The most compelling and comprehensible stories tend to employ all of the above tactics. Put another way, these tactics shouldn’t be thought about in isolation but rather be employed in an integrated way. Try to focus on just a few things, simplify the information, make it insightful by connecting the dots, increase the relatability by including a human face, and take advantage of visual aides to express information.

Doing all of these things at once can prove to be a challenge to journalists, but it is a challenge that gets easier with time. However, even doing just a few of these things will go a long way to producing a story infused with quantitative information that general audiences can both learn from and enjoy.