Some thoughts on interactivity and storytelling

Two somewhat intertwining themes in many of the presentations at this year’s Malofiej conference (and last year as well) were what role interactivity and storytelling should play in data visualization. I think these two issues are related, and both of them are extremely important for our profession.

New York Times’ Archie Tse memorably told the conference (in 2016) that “readers just want to scroll” and that “if you make the reader click or do anything other than scroll, something spectacular has to happen.” That is, most of the visitors on a newspaper’s site don’t deeply interact with the graphics on the site, but instead prefer to just scroll and treat the interactive visualizations as static pictures.

Gregor Aisch published today a blog post titled “In defense of interactive graphics” which adds more shades of gray. I found this a particularly salient point: “– – you should not hide important content behind interactions. If some information is crucial, don’t make the user click or hover to see it – –. But not everything is crucial and 15% of readers isn’t nobody.” Another good point he makes is that letting the readers explore the data in detail helps spot mistakes and correct them.

Not all users and all use cases are as important! A sizeable part of my own work consists of doing interactive visualizations for public sector clients. Although the broadly defined target audience might be “anyone interested in the issue” very often there is a much, much smaller core audience, sometimes only a handful of people, whose needs are very different from a random visitor. These might be e.g. MPs who write legislation on the issue my client has a stake in, or experts in the subject matter working in a different arm of government. Such users are often much more invested in the issue to begin with, more knowledgeable on the topic, and more willing to spend time exploring a dataset. These past two days we heard of many examples of projects which may not have been huge hits with readers, but which helped journalists working within the newsroom to find stories. All these are examples of cases where you shouldn’t decide whether the graphic was succesful based only on how the 85% or 99% or users interacted (or didn’t) with it, but also take into account that some users are more valuable to you than others.

This brings us to the issue of storytelling. Jon Schwabish’s presentation discussed the topic at length yesterday, and in response to Jon’s thoughts Chad Skelton made the point in his blog that a literary story is different from a news story. I think this is true and important, but I would still  argue a news story is called a “story” for a reason.

A story is defined in the dictionary as “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment”, “a piece of gossip; a rumour” – or even “a false statement; a lie”. (In a Finnish newsroom, likewise, a news story is called juttu; literally an anecdote, a yarn, even a joke.) The common theme here is that “a story” includes at least a somewhat subjective point of view, and a narrative arc, with which the writer or speaker ties a bunch of disparate facts together as a coherent explanation of a part of the world, whether or not that explanation is true. (Nathaniel Lash also touched on this issue in his presentation today.) A table of numbers is not a story (though a data journalist might see a story in that table), nor should an entry in a dictionary or encyclopedia be.

I found Anna Flagg’s presentation today extremely relevant for very many reasons, but one issue she discussed I want to specifically mention here was the question of perceived bias in journalism and how to combat that perception. She mentioned a survey according to which in the U.S., a whopping 71% of Trump supporters and even 50% of Clinton supporters wanted the media to report just the facts without including any interpretation their own. As professionals, we understand that, if taken literally, such reporting would probably not be possible and certainly not very useful. Nevertheless, these numbers are indicative of mistrust in the capacity and willingness of the media to report the facts fairly.

I would argue that part of the problem here is that we think of what we are doing as storytelling. A story is a structure which helps to connect disparate pieces of information (factual or not) into a coherent whole, to better understand and remember it. But what if those pieces, even if true, do not objectively fit into a coherent whole? How do we guard against the temptation of seeing a story where there isn’t one in reality? The journalistic code of ethics helps in weeding out intentionally misleading and plain sloppy reporting. I’m not sure it helps as much when the problem is journalists seducing themselves with their own stories.

This brings us back to the issue of interactivity. A non-interactive story is just that, a story – a necessarily somewhat subjective narrative arc tying up the facts into a coherent whole. Such a story can be informative and useful, but it is not transparent.

To add transparency to a data-driven story, add interactivity. Instead of showing just the portion of the data the journalist thinks is most relevant for the readers, let them explore the rest as well – if they so prefer. It seems most readers won’t take up the offer; despite saying they want just the facts without interpretation, based on New York Times’ experience most people seem to prefer the journalist’s interpretation of the data to exploring it on their own. But the minority who is interested in and willing to explore the data exists. We should cater to them as well as the majority.

Not only to give them an engaging experience and a better understanding of the world, but also to keep ourselves honest.