Best Practices: Visual Journalism

Interactive Media

Explore the makings of interactive journalism

At some point, every journalist grapples with figuring out what his or her story is about – particularly if that story involves complex data sets or government documents, and the end result will be an interactive project rather than a straightforward narrative.

Perhaps Andrew DeVigal can help.

DeVigal is director of content strategy at Second Story and the former multimedia editor at The New York Times. In a phone interview, he shared the steps he takes when starting an interactive project to ensure the results form a cogent story.

The first question he asks himself is a deceptively simple one: “What does the content want to be?” It is a question he attributes to a former colleague at The Times, Steve Duenes, AME for graphics.

DeVigal, a self-described “natural organizer,” likes to partition the information into buckets to understand the different pieces of the story. In doing that, he will ask himself such questions as, “What is the information about?”, “Who does it affect?” and “What is at stake here?”

When he has a solid understanding of the information available to him, his next step is to “highlight the most important key elements.” That helps him determine how to present the interactive so the viewer can dive into complexity, or skim if the information is too complex.

“That’s the true craft of a journalist: to make things clear for the viewers and readers,” he said.

DeVigal’s last step before building the interactive is to think about the audience and the context in which they will see the story. Analyzing the potential audience is very difficult, DeVigal said, especially for general-purpose news sites that are “trying to hit as many people as possible.” Nonetheless, he added that it’s crucial to “frame the presentation so that you actually have a very known target audience,” even if that leads you to creating two different versions of your interactive aimed at different target audience.

What is interactive journalism?

DeVigal’s philosophy on interactives has been shaped by a career that began in informational graphics at The Chicago Tribune, took him to Knight-Ridder as a designer and brought him to San Francisco State University as a professor of visual journalism while he was a fellow and visiting faculty at Poynter, and then led him to the Times. After six years in New York, DeVigal moved to Oregon and began working for Second Story, a design studio specializing in interactive storytelling and part of SapientNitro.

But what is interactive journalism, anyway?

The term has described many multimedia news packages — think Snowfall, Gauging Your Distraction, Firestorm, A World Apart and Hazardous Hospitals. These projects combine video, photos, audio, graphics, maps, data visualizations and text to tell stories that couldn’t exist before the Internet.

But DeVigal sees interactive journalism as far more than a reflection of which media are used for storytelling. To him, it’s a carefully crafted experience, one that draws users in and lets them create their own individual stories from the content available.

Several aspects of interactives allow this. For starters, viewers can consume a story at their own pace and find their own path through it, instead of following a linear presentation typical of print.

Open pathways lead to personalization: DeVigal wants to make viewers feel as if the “story was about themselves.”

He offered the example of a map — it’s interactive because a user can start with the big picture and then drill down to only see information on, say, California. The ability to switch perspectives gives designers breathing room to introduce more complex information that wasn’t possible in static print stories. The user can also customize the map, creating a new and unique experience every time.

An experiment in film

Since DeVigal started working outside of the news industry, he has had more freedom to experiment. In October, for instance, DeVigal and his team at Second Story experimented with an interactive storytelling project, Shape of Story, at a screening of seven short films on gun rights and gun-control laws at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore.

Shape of Story from Second Story on Vimeo.

During each film, viewers were asked to tap a button on an app every time they had an emotional reaction. Immediately after each film, the Second Story team projected a visualization on the screen showing which moments caused the most reactions from the audience. This visualization was the shape of the story.

Viewers also had three minutes to submit comments through the app, with the team choosing comments to display on the big screen alongside the visualization.

The goal wasn’t to find the perfect shape of story, but to explore whether interactions among audience members could add value to the movie-going experience.

The short answer according to Nora Bauman, operations manager at Second Story, is yes. The key to interactives, she said in a phone interview, is that “you’re creating an experience for a user so they can write their own narrative.”

Perhaps that’s why DeVigal has always asked the same question, regardless of the medium he’s using or where he’s been employed: “Can we bring the same special ingredient around campfire storytelling into the ways we’re telling stories?”

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Correction and clarification: A previous version of this story located the Hollywood Theatre in Los Angeles rather than Portland, Ore. DeVigal attributes a question he asks himself to a former colleague, Steve Duenes, and Second Story is a part of SapientNitro. Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: Your personal brand

If someone “googles” you, what will they find? A well-crafted, professional profile? The finest samples of your work or structured settlement cash now? A summary of your ideas about the future of journalism? Over time, you leave quite a digital trail. Here are bits of advice for refining your personal brand—part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers. Next Friday: Tips for data visualization.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Creating Your Personal Brand

Related: How to make photos better | How to polish your writing | How to make the most of your tweets | How to get your video right  | Tips for an online portfolio Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: How to make photos better

As a designer and editor, my projects have been made infinitely better because I’ve worked with stellar photojournalists. They’ve patiently schooled me on the importance of capturing the moment, finding the best light and thinking about composition. Here are a few tips. Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, think of this as bite-sized inspiration. Next Friday: How to create your online portfolio and personal brand.

Quinn-fo-graphics: How to make photos better

For a PDF: Quinn-fo-graphics: How to make photos better

Related: How to make the most of your tweets | How to get your video right |
How to polish your writing Read more

icon for writing

Tips for Storytellers: How to polish your writing

Lucky me. My office is two doors down from one of the world’s best writing coaches. I go to Roy Peter Clark often when writer’s block hits me. Here, you’ll find a few particularly helpful tips. Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, think of this as bite-sized inspiration. Next Friday: How to make your photos better.

Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: Polish your writing

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphic: How to polish your writing

Related: How to make the most of your tweets | How to shoot great video Read more

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Tips for Storytellers: Get your video right

If you never trained for video, here are a few basic tips from Regina McCombs, senior editor for visual news at Minnesota Public Radio and Poynter adjunct faculty.

Part of a series of graphics with tips for storytellers, this infographic can be thought of as bite-sized inspiration.

Last Monday: How to make the most of your tweets Next Friday: Tips for polishing your writing, with Roy Peter Clark and others
Poynter Quinn-fo-graphics: Get your video right

For a PDF: Poynter Quinn-fo-graphics: Get your video right

Related training: Effective News Videos with Videolicious: A Digital Tools Tutorial, Oct. 30 | Key Elements to Compelling Video Storytelling, on-demand Webinar replay Read more

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Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 8.26.47 AM

Why rainbow colors aren’t the best option for data visualizations

Data visualizations are beautiful, exciting ways to tell stories. But you have to choose carefully in designing a map or chart, and one of the biggest mistakes is misusing rainbow colors.

Rainbow color schemes — also called spectral color schemes — are frequent choices for visualizing data, both because they look bold and exciting and because they’re the default for many visualization software tools. But they usually do more harm than good. Detecting the colors at all is a problem for more readers than you might guess, and the rest of the audience will find it easier to understand the visualization if it’s presented with a different palette.

Rainbow color schemes are “almost always the wrong choice,” Anthony C. Robinson, geography professor at Pennsylvia State University, wrote in an online class on Coursera, which taught students how to use geospatial technologies to map data.

Here are some reasons why rainbow colors are the “wrong choice”:

Colorblindness and ordering colors

People who are colorblind have difficulties detecting colors, particularly red and green. (Try this color vision test to see if you’re one of them.) Colorblindness affects up to 10 percent of men. That means if you’re serving up visuals to an audience of hundreds of thousands, you’re missing out on a large slice of your audience.

Even though most people aren’t colorblind, rainbow color schemes can be confusing because there’s no clear “greater than” or “less than” logic to ordering the colors, warn computer science researchers David Borland and Russell M. Taylor II. People generally agree on the progression from light to dark, but sort colors differently, as shown here:

“If people are given a series of gray paint chips and asked to put them in order, they will consistently place them in either a dark-to-light or light-to-dark order. However, if people are given paint chips colored red, green, yellow, and blue and asked to put them in order, the results vary,” according to researchers David Borland and Russell M. Taylor II, professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Changes can be hard to see

Visualizations tell the story behind changes in data; their job is to simplify complex patterns into an illustration that lets you understand — ideally at a glance — what’s going on. But human eyes aren’t good at detecting the edges of different colors sitting side by side. We’re better at seeing small changes within single color ranges because luminance and saturation values change smoothly where colors do not, wrote Robert Kosara, visual analysis researcher at Tableau and an expert on how we see color, on his personal website, EagerEyes.

The details get technical very quickly, but the key lesson is rainbow colors only show differences when the actual color changes, while color gradients allow people to see gradual changes.

Your audience is going to struggle to tell the nuances apart if you use rainbow colors rather than sticking to a graduated scale of one color.

Misleading conclusions

Depending on your audience, the wrong choice can have serious consequences. In a Harvard study, researchers found 2-D diagrams of heart arteries that used a gradient from black to red were more effective tools for doctors making diagnoses than 3-D models using rainbow colors. Clinical studies showed the diagrams that used a gradient increased the accuracy of doctors’ diagnoses of atherosclerosis and heart disease from 39 percent to 91 percent.

A comparison of the effectiveness of 2-D arterial diagrams with black to red gradients and 3-D rainbow-colored models. (Images: Michelle Borkin / Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)

Not every data visualization is used in making critical medical calls, but rainbow colors may mislead when journalists use them to incorrectly show quantitative data.

“Rainbow colors are not bad if you’re using them for categorical data,” Drew Skau, visualization architect at, told Poynter in a video interview. “They’re bad if you use them to represent continuous data.”

What’s the difference? Continuous data is quantitative and described by numbers; categorical data is qualitative and described by words. For example, compare these groupings:

  • Exotic pets: chinchilla, ocelot, scorpions, hissing cockroaches, pythons
  • Temperature in Fahrenheit: -459.67°F, 32°F, 212°F
  • Electoral votes during elections: 206, 270, 332

The exotic pets are related to each other, but not continuous — you can’t measure the difference between a chinchilla and an ocelot. The temperature readings, on the other hand, are continuous — they’re numbers on a scale with measurable distances.

Electoral votes are continuous data, but they’re also divergent. We want to know what the mid point is (270 electoral votes) because whoever receives more than 50 percent of the votes wins. Thus, the data visualization usually shows blue to represent Democrats on one end and red for Republicans on the other end, which is the ideal way to represent divergent data.

This exercise from Robinson shows how spectral colors make it much harder to tell the difference in volume of tweets (which is quantitative data) during the 2012 presidential elections:

This map shows the volume of Obama and Romney tweets from the 2012 presidential elections, using spectral colors.
(Image: Dr. Anthony C. Robinson / Penn State)
Here’s the same map, but Robinson has changed the rainbow colors to a single hue (purple) with varying saturation.
(Image: Dr. Anthony C. Robinson / Penn State)

But rainbow colors are often used to illustrate quantitative data, even by NASA scientists. Academics have urged the scientific community to stop using spectral colors, and scientists and engineers are worried about the accuracy of color use. As journalists, we can learn from both the research and the arguments.

Help from the experts

Many data experts have built useful tools to help you pick colors:

  • ColorBrewer by Cynthia Brewer, Mark Harrower and Penn State helps you design color palettes for maps; you can choose the number of data items, the type of data, and even colorblind-safe colors.
  • Color Tool, created by former NASA researchers, offers a professional-grade app for complex infographics and aeronautical displays.
  • Adobe’s Kuler is a slick color wheel that offers color schemes.
  • Poynter’s NewsU’s digital tools catalog has a range of tools with which you can get started visualizing data.

Colors are wonderful — in researching this article, I discovered things about them I never knew, such as the fact that yellow is the brightest color of the rainbow and that people who speak other languages may see colors English speakers can’t. Colors help make visualizations exciting, but a few wise color choices can ensure those visualizations are more importantly informative. Read more

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How The Verge used visuals to tell the delicate story of a face transplant

The ordeal of a woman who received a total face transplant is hard for an audience to fathom without seeing it. But Verge science editor Katie Drummond had a challenge beyond potentially making some readers squeamish: how to tell the story with the care and respect Carmen Tarleton deserved.

45-year-old Carmen Tarleton worked as a registered nurse in Thetford, Vt., before she was attacked by her husband in 2007. She has two daughters, Hannah and Liza.

Tarleton’s ex-husband attacked her with lye and a baseball bat in 2007, and media coverage afterward upset her because it prefaced stories with disclaimers like “‘warning, this footage is graphic and may disturb some viewers,’” Drummond wrote in an e-mail to Poynter.

That horrified Tarleton, Drummond wrote. “The idea that her own face was being treated as if she was some kind of monster, or that her disfigurement made her somehow less human.”

Drummond and the editors at The Verge wanted to respect Tarleton’s feelings.

“When you’re telling the intimate story of someone who’s been through such inconceivable challenges,” said Drummond. “It becomes even more important to accurately and sensitively capture who they are and what they’ve been through.”

The Verge decided to tell the story through Drummond’s text, sensitively rendered illustrations and a mesmerizing video interview with Tarleton created by Sam Thonis and Stephen Greenwood after her surgery.

Tarleton had agreed to the television interviews back in 2007, said Drummond, but she had lost her vision in the attack, “so had absolutely no idea what her face looked like.”

Her interview with The Verge is juxtaposed with photos of Tarleton as a beautiful young woman and with images of Cheryl Denelli-Righter, a stroke victim who became the donor of her new face.

Seeing and hearing Tarleton tell her own story gives a clear view of her courageousness that would be otherwise tough to comprehend.

After the surgery, she invited Denelli-Righter’s daughter Marinda Righter to touch her mother’s face, now her own. Her mother “is still here, because I have her face,” said Tarleton in the video. “I can’t help but think… I could just go up to Vermont and give my mom’s face a kiss,” Righter told Drummond.

Tarleton’s speech is still difficult to understand because of the surgery and will be on the long recovery ahead, but the former registered nurse is frank and articulate. She’s currently learning to play piano and dating her instructor.

The story’s lead image is a drawing of two faces coming together as one.

Katie Scott created the illustrations for the story, including this conceptual image.

“We wanted to work with someone who had a scientific touch to their drawings but wasn’t necessarily an anatomical illustrator,” said Verge art director James Chae, who commissioned illustrator Katie Scott.

Drawings throughout the presentation help to tie together other concepts visually, like the tricky surgical procedure, potential risks and illnesses, the long-term need for medication and the possible loss of personal identity.

The Verge crew worked closely together to tell the complicated story that had to come together in one package. “I feel we are given a lot of license to be the author and really tell a story,” Chae said in a telephone interview. “The word is thrown around a lot, but here at The Verge, it is a really intimate collaboration. Everyone has input.”

“We all felt as if we were telling a story that was … the unbelievable ability of a face transplant to profoundly change someone’s life,” said Drummond.

It was important that readers be exposed to both the before and the after in images and video, she said, “because we really wanted to convey what this woman endured and what this surgery accomplished.”

A reader expressed shock when he first saw the image in the story of Tarleton before surgery, said Drummond. Then he finished the story and watched the video. “When (he) went back to that image,” she said, “it was much less jarring — [he] just saw a woman. I really appreciated hearing that, and I think it gets at what we were trying to convey … Carmen is ‘just a woman,’ albeit an incredible one who overcame incredible odds—and we hoped readers would see that.” Read more


Apple: ‘You need a dirty mind to be an editor in this business’

The Visual Side of Journalism

That’s the observation of Charles Apple, who notes some sexually suggestive graphics and headlines that have slipped past editors. One of them is this recent weather graphic from USA Today:

“You need to have a dirty mind to be in the business of mass communications,” Apple writes. “Or, at the very least, you need someone with a dirty mind on your staff. Because you do not want to give the sixth grader in all of us this kind of viral amusement.” More examples in his post. Read more

"My editors agreed that black and white got the readers to the heart and soul of the images without any distractions," said Davidson.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer captures emotional, physical wounds from gang violence

Barbara Davidson‘s “Caught in the Crossfire” project, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in feature photography, features authentic images that tell untold stories, as they capture intimacy, depth and compassion.

The photographs in “Caught in the Crossfire” give people a reason to pause and reflect on how victims and their families have endured the effects of gang violence in Los Angeles. And they relay the seriousness of the issue in ways that words alone can’t.

I talked with the L.A. Times’ Davidson via email about her reporting process, why she chose the photos she did, and what advice she has for other journalists covering gang violence. You can read our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity, below.

Kenny Irby: Tell me about the “Caught in the Crossfire” project. How and why did you invest so much time, energy and staff resources into covering gang violence?

Barbara Davidson: We dug deep with this project so that our readers could get to know these families and have an understanding of the devastating impact of gang violence on innocent bystanders. Colin Crawford and Mary Cooney, my editors, decided at a certain point in the project that they would have to take me off the daily schedule so I could concentrate full-time on finding victims, doing video interviews, visiting with the families who were going to be a part of the story, going on police and fire ride-alongs, talking to gang interventionists, etc. To produce the multimedia piece, we needed a team. The amount of time and expertise our multimedia staff put into this project was inspiring.

How did you gain such intimate access to sources? And what was it like to manage so many relationships with people who had endured so much trauma?

“I spent one year covering more funerals than I have in my entire 18-year career,” said Barbara Davidson.

This project is as intimate as it is because of the time I spent getting to know the families. I remember saying to the families, ‘You are going to see me over and over and over again and you won’t see other media representatives coming back to listen to your story.’ And, that is indeed what happened, so they trusted me. They could see how much the issue meant to me and they liked that. They respected what I was doing and they felt people would listen to their stories through me.

I delved deeply into this story, and it took a heavy toll on me. I spent one year covering more funerals than I have in my entire 18-year career. But the families I was covering had a far deeper level of pain than I, and that fueled me to keep documenting their stories.

I was struck by the wide range of diverse individuals in your project. How did diversity play out in your reporting?

From the start I knew this project needed to be as diverse as possible in order for the story to resonate with as many people as possible. I didn’t want this story to be a clichéd investigation of one race, since it impacts all races. It would have been easy to focus on one race, but we knew that would not be a comprehensive look at the issue. So, I consciously looked for families of different races to be a part of this story.

You have covered stories like this before. What made these victims of gang violence unique?

We reported on this story in a unique way because we dug deep and followed families through the aftermath of being shot or having a loved one murdered. We spent time documenting what it’s like for these families months — and years — after their lives have been changed forever.

Were there times when you had to make compromises for the sake of the broader story and not take pictures? And if so, how did you justify your choices and actions?

There were times where I felt it was inappropriate to take pictures, either because it was just too invasive or because it was more important for me to be present with whomever I was with at the time. Sure, I missed some good pictures, but I come from the perspective — as cliché as it may seem — to operate as a person first and a journalist second. I don’t think I could have covered this story any other way.

“My editors agreed that black and white got the readers to the heart and soul of the images without any distractions,” said Davidson.

How did you gather audio and video, and how did teamwork come into play when doing this?

We decided to conduct all the interviews at the Los Angeles Times in one of our studios for a couple of reasons. One, we needed the technical control. We needed to have the best sound possible and we couldn’t get the consistency in the subjects’ homes. Two, we wanted the families to tell their stories in the privacy of our studio without any distractions.

I didn’t know what the effect would be, but it was heartbreaking. Every person we interviewed in the studio retold us his or her story as though it had just happened. It was very moving. I conducted the interviews and a videographer covered the technical aspects of the shoot. I wanted to be fully focused on the interviews because of their sensitive nature.

When I could, I also gathered audio in the field that I thought would help with transitions in the edit. You always miss a picture when you are trying to juggle both, but you have to sacrifice one or the other so that one is good quality.

This story was roughly 80 percent logistics and 20 percent shooting. Since this was a photo-driven project, I reported on the issue, investigated shootings, worked with gang intervention workers, checked in with reporters and detectives, gathered on-sight sound and videos, and researched as much as possible on the issue.

This story pushed me out of my comfort zone as a journalist because I was multitasking so much and performing tasks outside my shooting expertise. This was by far my most ambitious documentary project because it was such a complex issue with so many moving parts that I had to try to navigate in an uncontrolled environment.

How and when did you decide to make it a black and white project?

I felt this was a black and white essay from the start. When I first shared my photos with my editors, I did so in black and white.

Black and white was the way we looked at and edited the images from the beginning of the project. The images in this essay are moment-driven, and because of that I thought it would be best to go with black and white and not be distracted by color.

Color has to be an integral part of the composition for it to be used optimally. I was more driven by the interaction of the people in my photos vs. the color composition. My editors agreed that black and white got the readers to the heart and soul of the images without any distractions. We used the same sensibility for the video interviews because we wanted to have consistency with the feel of the project. We didn’t want to blend black and white and color together.

Did the use of social media and/or mobile technology impact your reporting at all?

Social media helped me circulate the story once it was published. I posted it on my Facebook page and on Twitter. The story quickly circulated because other journalists posted it, too. So social media was great in getting the word out about the project. Often the way I would keep up with the families would be through text messaging. And many times I gleaned important information via text messaging, too.

What did you learn from reporting this project?

To me, the most tragic element of what I learned reporting this issue is that it can be told in any major city of the United States. And the deeper I dug into this story, the more I realized that it’s time for journalists to start shedding light on under-reported stories in this country.

What advice can you offer to journalists who attempt to take on a similar project?

I would say that to take on a project like this, the photographer really has to research and be an expert on what it is they want to document. I wasn’t an expert when I first looked into the issue of gang-related violence, but I asked a lot of questions and read everything I could get my hands on about the issue.

Once you understand the issue you want to report on, the images will fall into place. I was lucky this project became my beat. All reporters have beats, which is why they get to know the issues they are covering so well. Photographers don’t have beats, so I think getting your editors on board with a really strong written proposal about the project you want to pursue — and then delivering photos to back up your written proposal — is the way to go. Read more

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What tools can journalists use to improve their visual storytelling skills?

In this week’s career chat, we talked with Wasim Ahmad, an assistant professor of journalism at Stony Brook University. Ahmad has been an copy editor, photographer, Web editor and content producer, and he started Journographica — a site where he posts tips about visual journalism.

During the chat, Ahmad talked about several tools that all journalists can use to improve their visual storytelling skills. He answered chat participants’ questions about the tools he described and talked about how these tools relate to some of the latest trends in visual journalism.

You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat.

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >What tools can journalists use to make stories more visual?</a> Read more

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