‘Data porn’ – where is the journalism?


With a name like Chart Porn, you might get a few disappointed visitors to your website.  It describes itself as ‘An addictive collection of beautiful charts, graphs, maps, and interactive data visualization toys — on topics from around the world.

You can find example after example of ‘beautiful’ infographics, but it is the word ‘porn’ that speaks volumes.  It suggests quick visual gratification, rather than explanation and analysis.

So the big question must be… is the journalism being lost behind the graphic designing?

As Claire Gilmore discussed in an earlier post on this blog, there is a distinct trend towards turning data visualisations into artwork.

The 2 dangers facing data journalists that emerge from this trend are neatly summarised by Paul Bradshaw:

  • DATA CHURNALISM = producing stories from data sets without context or proper interrogation
  • DATA PORN = where journalists look for big, attention grabbing numbers or produce visualisations of data that add no value to the story

These are major concerns.  My worry is that in the rush to embrace an exciting form of story telling, the journalism is being left behind.

There are murmurs of discontent among some journalists.  One source told me about criticisms of David McCandless and Andy PerkinsSnake Oil piece.  The evidence behind the evidence-based medicine presented in the image (if that makes sense) ‘is a touch flaky’ the source tells me.

In other words, the whole story is based on questionable medical research.  This is an issue that David McCandless tackles head on:

‘This piece was doggedly researched by myself, and researchers Pearl Doughty-White and Alexia Wdowski. We looked at the abstracts of over 1500 studies on PubMed (run by US National Library Of Medicine) and Cochrane.org (which hosts meta-studies of scientific research). It took us several months to seek out the evidence – or lack of.’

Whichever way you look at it, the fundamental point it raises is that proper journalism is required for proper data journalism.

The everyday principles of good journalism have to apply, involving data doesn’t change a thing:

  1. Accuracy
  2. Objectivity
  3. Originality

An interesting discussion on a Martin Belam post really gets to the heart of issue:

We [journalists] can do more [than developers and designers]: where a developer might make a graphic, we can find a story. We’re more likely to chase up the anomalies, look for wrongdoing, and to pick up the phone and talk to the people involved.

Grabbing a data set and throwing up a visualisation because it looks amazing is just data porn.  Journalism is a highly skilled profession, and just because you can generate a front page infographic (ahem, The Independent Tuesday 25 May 2010) doesn’t qualify you as a data journalist.  It makes you a data artist.

It feels only right to finish on this quote from James Ball:

it’s crucial journalists learn to treat it [data] properly – and that’ll only come when it’s treated with the same respect (and fear) that surrounds misspelling someone’s name.

By Michael Greenfield (@mgreenfield13)

This entry was posted in Future of journalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ‘Data porn’ – where is the journalism?

  1. Ruth says:

    I agree – I especially think that using pi charts can be very misleading, but it’soften done just to get some gratifying colour.

  2. …and we’ve continually revised and updated the Snake Oil data to correct errors and factor in more recent evidence and studies.

    We’ve just worked for two weeks compiling and updating the data for a complete refresh of the app. It will be live in a week or so. Once we’ve double-checked it. Thanks! David

    • drivenbydata says:

      Thanks for your comment David. I’m interested by the continually evolving nature of a dataset. If there were errors in the original data, should it have been published at that stage? I look forward to seeing the refreshed app. Michael

  3. Martin Belam says:

    I’ve seen a couple of recent talks where the people behind some of the interactives and data visualisations on the Guardian and at the BBC talked about the risk of allowing data pr0n to take over from storytelling – “Alastair Dant talks ‘Interactives – now and the future’” and “‘Telling Stories with Data’ – the BBC’s Scott Byrne-Fraser

    • drivenbydata says:

      Great, thanks for the links Martin. Glad to see others in the field who have raised the issue – I very much agree with the quote from Daithí Ó Crualaoich. Michael

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