Tips on Making Great TV Graphics

1. Understand first, then be understood. How clearly do you understand the story? Does the information make sense? Is it logical, believable, and reliable? Do you know the source and/or the motivation the source has for supplying the information?

2. What is the context of this graphic? If the story is about a rise in crime, ask where the rise is occurring. How does this rise compare with the total crime pattern?

Consider this: Nicetown has 50 murders this year; Pleasantville recorded 25 murders this year. Is Nicetown twice as dangerous as Pleasantville?

Nicetown has a population of 200,000 people.
Pleasantville has a population of 25,000 people.

Nicetown's murder rate is 50/20,000 (or 1 in 4,000).
Pleasantville's murder rate is 25/25,000 (or 1 in 1,000).

In fact, Pleasantville's murder rate is 4 times higher than Nicetown.

3. Ask more sophisticated questions to make better graphics. Is a 100-percent increase in murder the result of one mass murder, or many acts in separate areas of town? Does the increase represent a significant increase in crime, or has the murder rate gone from one person killed per year to two killed this year? How can you show where crimes occur in your town? Most cities have crime pockets, not random crimes that occur everywhere.

4. Think shapes -- not numbers. It is difficult to see the relative nature of numbers when they are presented quickly on the TV screen. But it is easy to understand the growth of a budget when a bag of money is shown growing onscreen. Imagine you have no words -- that the graphic is all the viewer can see. How clearly would they understand what you are trying to show.

5. Think clearly about the purpose of this graphic. Some graphics reconstruct tangible images such as a medical experiment or a building layout. Others illustrate the the intangible such as a budget or a bank merger. Ask yourself, what exactly do I want the viewer to learn from this graphic? You should be able to express the answer in one short sentence: I want viewers to see that the budget has doubled, or that rapes are occurring mostly within this five-block area of town.

6. Go lightly on the numbers.

Consider these:


The numbers are simple but not as effective as graphics. Your eye is trying to make mental calculations first, then it has to see the difference in the numbers next to them. Back and forth and back and forth, up to 12 times to absorb all the information.

An easier to comprehend graphic may be:

1997 ---------- 54
1998 ------------- 63
1999 ----------------- 71

7. Movement is good but use it carefully. The above graphic could be effective if the line grows as you reveal the numbers. But be careful with movement. Make things grow or disappear in proportion to the accurate length of time it took. For example, if budgets got cut over 10 years, you might show a gradual cut. But if there was a rise in crime at the same time, be careful not to make the upwards arrow go shooting up to fast: It makes an editorial statement you may not want to convey.

8. Write after you make the graphic -- not the other way around. This will assure that the copy and graphic match exactly.

9. Get someone else to look at it. Let them tell you what the graphic conveys to them. It is no different than copy editing.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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