Worth a Thousand Words?: Graphics in Journalism

Al Tompkins’ discussion of graphics in chapter ten of Aim for the Heart proves that looks really do matter.

According to Tompkins, viewers only understand 1/3 of what they see on television (pg. 132). Graphics in news broadcasts need to be simple and to the point, but still pleasing to the eye.  Shapes are important in news graphics, as most people can understand certain images and signs with little to no explanation. Tompkins illustrates this point using a hippo crossing sign he saw in South Africa (pg. 130). The shape of the sign, along with the colors used, and the overall design enabled Tompkins to understand the sign completely without the use of a single word. An overabundance of graphics without explanation though, could create confusion.

Accuracy in graphics is just as important than the aesthetic aspects. Graphics, just as the story itself, should answer the who, what, when, where, why and how in the most concise way possible.  Relating a statistic, such as an extremely large number, to a visual thing an average viewer would understand creates a successful graphic.

Tompkins cites the MegaPenny Project as a great example of this. This website compares various amounts of pennies to other object. This website seems relatively pointless to me though. Who cares that ten million pennies would make a perfect 6 foot cube? It’s completely unrealistic for most people to imagine ten million pennies in a cube!

A much better example is the one Tompkins cites from Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 report where she relates finding a cancerous cell in a PAP smear to finding a certain type of car in a distant, massive parking lot. Everyone can understand this analogy, we’ve all seen huge parking lots. ABC News succeeded in this aspect again with this report on SAT scores. By using a soccer team as an analogy to describe how colleges determine admissions by SAT scores, ABC News took a very confusing topic and made it easy to understand to everyone, without requiring them to imagine how something would be stacked or weighed to be relatable to something else.

At my job at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, we had to take a self-inventory test to determine what kind of learner we are. I was an overwhelmingly visual learner, rather than auditory or kinesthetic learner. The rest of the staff also all identified as visual learners. We took this test to determine how we could best reach our audience. We act as educators at the museum who inform and entertain our audience, very similar to journalists. This test made me realize how important it is to use graphics and images not just in my museum tour, but in any situation where I need to explain something. Chapter ten of Aim for the Heart reinforced this idea by using powerful graphics itself!