So You Want To Be a Data Journalist: The Ethics of Mapping

Color choice, design layout, data ranges. These are all elements that a data journalist may need to build a map. They are also elements that guide the ethics of data journalism.

Ethics in data journalism. Really? Isn’t data journalism just presenting and analyzing numbers? I think that’s the danger of believing that there are no ethical guidelines when it comes to visualizing data.

People rarely discuss issues related to data journalism. At Columbia’s j-school, we went through seven weeks of ethics class and not once did we talk about ethics in data journalism. But it seems like the more I learn about data journalism, the more I come to realize that it’s not just about Google Fusion tables, graphs, HTML, CSS, Python, etc. Those are important tools but data visualization also involves ethical elements: How we choose a certain scheme, the data range, or even the way data is presented help to influence the way that readers understand the graphics and visualizations.

Gregor Aisch, a self-process data geek, recently cautioned about the failure to accurately depict data in choropleth maps. Acting like a data viz critic, he reviews the Guardian‘s choropleth map on poverty in the United States. After using the same data to create his own choropleth map, Aisch found two major flaws in the Guardian version: the data range and the colour scheme.

The skewed data range that was rounded up, Aisch says, may create an inaccurate depiction of poverty in the U.S. Aisch also suggested that the range should be distributed over seven levels instead of five to be more accurate.

He also shows how the colour palette the Guardian chose was problematic because the colour gradient. The fourth and fifth colour gradients were enormous jumps, Aisch says, from the three other colours. Color choice is important for several reasons, one being that colour is highly politicized. The meaning of red varies from happiness to death depending on what country or region you consider.

It almost seems like a data journalist is part nerd, part journalist, part psychologist when you consider all the factors that need to reviewed to present data in the most accurate and appealing way.

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