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September 13, 2010 / Gina D.

Showing your work

Working through (and sometimes around) incomplete data the last couple weeks finally struck a chord with me the other day when it occurred me: Graphics do more than help illustrate or simply call attention to numbers or break up text. In some cases, they force sources — and journalists — to show their work. It’s easy to say “X was the number five years ago, and today, it’s (this much) lower.” Easy to do the math with two numbers and arrive at the decrease of Y.

But what if there’s more to it? (There almost always is.) What if, amid those five years, the number went slightly higher one year before going lower? Doesn’t that deserve a mention, and maybe even a response from a source touting the decline? I don’t have my old college stats textbook handy, but I’d stake my next paycheck on the fact that two numbers do not constitute a trend.

Journalists are obliged to challenge what we’re fed. So I beg, plead, bludgeon and barrage in order to get graphics assignments in so early because I don’t hold myself exempt from that challenge. A real pain in the arse, I know, but a necessary one. And, I gotta think, a help to the reporters as much as to me and — again — ultimately our readers.

I put a lot of pressure on our reporters to turn in their numbers to me, hoping I’ll have enough time to figure out the best way to maximize their impact on readers. That said, I’m fairly certain a lot of folks throughout the entire process think my main goal is break up grey text. (It’s not.) Combating that assumption makes it very difficult to get data in a timely fashion, if at all. So do deadlines, apparently.

Thankfully, Google makes a lot of tools that make it very easy to poke, prod and badger — er, remind. Gently.

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