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How to turn data into compelling audio and video

By Maggie Angst

For journalists working with audio or video, it can sometimes be challenging to find the best way to display data in story.

Joe Wertz, an environment and energy reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma, emphasized that although we really want a character to tell a story, sometimes the data can be the character.

For example, Wertz and Michael Corey, senior news applications developer for Reveal, worked on a data story about the increase in Oklahoma earthquakes.

In 2014, Oklahoma had nearly three times as many earthquakes as California. The reason, they found, had to do with the oil and gas boom. Unfamiliar with radio at first, Corey wondered, “How are we going to make the data felt on the radio?”

In order to tell the story, Corey worked with a sound engineer and ran the earthquake waves through synthesizers to create a beep whenever there was an earthquake. Using Musical Instrument Digital Interface, MIDI, Corey was able to map the set of musical notes to the time and magnitude of each earthquake.

“Just like other visualizations, you need to ask yourself, is this conveying it clearly?” Corey said. “Follow the rules you follow for visual charting, which usually come down to taking more out.”

Not all stories makes for a good video, but Kavya Sukumar, a developer at Vox Media, provided some examples of ones that work well:

  • Long-form stories that allow you to compress the whole narrative into a visual format
  • A concept explainer for complex issues
  • Promo videos for a big series that’s just starting to run.

Journalists have several ways to make these videos:

  • Overlays

  • Hand-drawn, which means you don’t need design or programming skills

  • Keyframe animation, which can be made using software like Adobe After Effects

Nancy Watzman, managing editor of the Political TV Ad Archive for the Internet Archive, also showed the audience how to use a new tool in order to enhance their video stories.

The Political TV Ad Archive captures political ads that journalists can download and embed into their stories. Reporters can also download a spreadsheet of data including:

  • Which ads are airing in a certain area
  • Which ads are airing the most
  • Which TV programs are targeted
  • Who is sponsoring the ad

“We have all this data, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of what you can do with it,” Watzman said.

In the end, all four panelists, like Watzman, emphasized the importance of experimenting with new things and figuring out the most engaging video or audio technique to use in order to tell a story.

Maggie Angst is a senior studying watchdog convergence journalism at the University of Missouri.

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