New York Times developer: Word clouds are bad data journalism

October 14, 2011
Category: Uncategorized

Nieman Journalism Lab
New York Times developer Jacob Harris explains why “every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.” The reason: Word clouds don’t live up to the best practices of data journalism. “At The New York Times, we strongly believe that visualization is reporting, with many of the same elements that would make a traditional story effective: a narrative that pares away extraneous information to find a story in the data; context to help the reader understand the basics of the subject; interviewing the data to find its flaws and be sure of our conclusions.” Simply counting the frequency of words and arranging them artistically doesn’t help the reader understand the information, Harris writes. A word cloud of the Iraq war logs, for instance, merely tells readers that the war involves a lot of of IEDs and explosions, “which is likely news to nobody.” || Related: Responding to Chase Davis and Matt Wynn’s post about treating news apps as products, Reginald Chua notes that one problem inhibiting news apps is that “we haven’t yet developed broadly-accepted conventions of how to explore data – so non-geeks (and even geeks) have to learn how to use each app individually.”


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