Data Visualization In Journalism: An Interview With Michael Keller

Data Visualization In Journalism: An Interview With Michael Keller

Annie Stone, Marketing Strategist

imgres-9imgres-8We are thrilled to have Michael Keller, an interactive multimedia reporter for Al Jazeera America, joining us tomorrow on our Visual Dimensions vodcast! We will be discussing the impact of data visualization in journalism and how Michael juggles reporting with development at the speed of global and national news.  I got to sit down with Michael yesterday to get a sneak peak of what he will be discussing tomorrow in the vodcast.  Here is our Q&A:

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you get into interactive multimedia reporting?

A: I took a somewhat roundabout way into the field and I definitely feel very lucky to be able to work with my current team members and all the talented folks over the past few years whom I've learned a great deal from.

I didn't plan on going into journalism. In college I studied Psychology and Comparative Literature. I worked at the campus alt-weekly doing mostly cover design and feature story layout for our print paper. It was unclear how French literature was going to get me a job and learning InDesign didn't seem like a very marketable skill either, the way print journalism was going.

Oddly, though, I learned a lot of the core skills we use on deadline in the newsroom: Comp. Lit. is all about understanding how compelling narratives function and cover design is about summarizing a longform story in one image.

The third component was an interest in people and their personalities. I was a volunteer EMT in college and I was amazed at the quantity of questions you had to ask someone before you could get even a very basic understanding of what has happening to them medically. I was also involved with clinical work for Psychology writing case studies of people with Alzheimer's Disease. Those two experiences sparked an interest in interviewing and connecting with people to make sense of what was happening to them.

I was living in France after college and applying to law school when I saw that one of the schools also had a journalism program. Seeing it there kind of clicked. I applied and was lucky enough to get in and take a class on interactive design. In finding interactive news, I found a way to marry a lot of my interests.

From there, I applied to fellowships that were looking for people with multimedia and design experience and was able to contribute to some worthwhile projects that got my foot in the door. There's a really great community of people in interactive news, though, and I owe a lot to people who encouraged me and answered my emails asking really rudimentary questions about how their code worked.

Q: What do you think defines a successful data visualization in your field?

A: This is *the* question. I'm currently working on a research project to try and figure this out more since there's a whole universe of things out there like page views, click interactions etc. Personally, I don't have a threshold for quantitative measurements that define success. For me, I try and build reader comments into interactive projects so that you can see if readers are gaining insight from what you built in a meaningful way. If the reader sees the issue in a way she or he hasn't seen it before, I would consider that successful.

Q: Why do you think Data Visualizations are so powerful in journalism?


I would broaden it to say not just data visualization but interactive news is what is powerful because it can show the reader how the story affects people them. It can personalize the news in a way we weren't able to before.

I also really like finding ways to work primary sources into stories. We did this with our timeline of hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay. My editor Lam Vo was really encouraging to bring a human element into an otherwise numbers-heavy story — afterall, the core of the story was about people depriving themselves of food, there had to be some human element. Alongside each hunger strike, where we could we published handwritten letters from detainees to their lawyers at the time describing their experience. Building narratives out of different media, if we can get the right mix, can reframe the story for a reader in a powerful way.

Q: You are on an interactive multimedia reporting team at Al Jazeera America, how do you think interactive multimedia is changing journalism, and the publishing industry?

A: This one might be above my paygrade since we try and stay close to the news and the story. But on an industry level, you see news organizations investing in new ways to tell stories in both online and broadcast formats -- and that's really encouraging. I think interactive news gives the reporter more ways to communicate with readers and it gives the readers more ways to see how the story affects them.

One quote from the report Post-Industrial Journalism goes:

"In the past journalists were messengers of scarce facts to a passive audience at an appointed time. Now we are managers of an abundance of information in partnership with active communities."I think you see a lot of interactive projects trying to organize and explain that abundance of information and looking to the audience for feedback of what they think about it and even help in making sense of it.

Q: What is the value of open source when it comes to interactives and data visualizations in journalism?

A: Open source in my view is all about transparency and credibility. If you're honest with your readers about what deductions and assumptions you made or how you cleaned the data, your conclusions are more trustworthy. Similar to the quote before, journalists often see themselves working in partnership with interested readers as opposed to working in secret until a "tada" moment, revealing their conclusions then walking away.

If you don't work in an open way, you're shutting off your most interested readers from connecting with you and possibly taking your work even further.


Want to hear more from Michael Keller? Check out tomorrow's Visual Dimensions Vodcast episode with Michael Keller as our special guest! We'll be talking more about these topics and getting some demos of the data visualizations that Michael has created for Al Jazeera America!  Sign up for Visual Dimensions' "Data Visualizations In Journalism" tomorrow, May 14th, 11:30 AM EST.

Annie Stone

Annie Stone

Marketing Strategist