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Tips for putting a human face on your data-driven story

By Soo Rin Kim

There’s nothing more boring and unappealing than seeing a story full of numbers. “But it’s a data story,” you say. “I can’t help it!” Put aside your excuses. Data stories can be and always have been human stories.

Mc Nelly Torres of NBC6 Miami, Andrew Lehren of the New York Times and Kendall Taggart of Buzzfeed News, got together for the Humanizing Numbers panel to discuss how they brought human faces to data-driven stories. Here are three tips from the session.

1. Chicken v. Egg

What comes first, human characters or data? You might find anecdotal stories first and then try to find data to help see the bigger picture. Or maybe you find interesting numbers in a dataset and then try to add human faces to those numbers. Either can be a frustrating journey.

Taggart began the session by emphasizing the importance of starting the reporting process with human characters, or at least finding them around the same you’re analyzing data. When working on a BuzzFeed News story about how Texas was sending poor teens to adult jails for skipping schools, Taggart and her team hit the road to talk to people as soon as they identified some names and addresses from an inmate database.

2. Casting

Telling a good data story is all about finding relatable faces that best demonstrate the emotions, conflicts and core of the story.

When looking for characters to represent stories, we often focus on the worst cases, but that might not be the most relatable story for the audience. For his New York Times story, “Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black,” Lehren chose to focus on Greensboro, North Carolina, which was the most representative town, but not the worst town. Then, he compared Greensboro and Fayetteville to show how different policies can bring different results.

Sometimes, you’ll have to be creative to find individuals involved in the story. For his story, “Use of Contractors Added to War’s Chaos in Iraq,” Lehren looked through LinkedIn resumes to find private contractors relevant to the story.

3. Don’t use numbers

So, now that we have numbers and characters, how do we use numbers effectively? The answer is: Don’t use them. All three speakers stressed the importance of cutting numbers.

“We don’t tell data,” Lehren said. “We tell stories.”

Torres told the audience to find the three most astounding facts or pieces of data as opposed to the other 5,000. When working on a long-term story, we often don’t want to give up on numbers we’ve been battling with for a long time. Think about other ways to use those numbers, like an infographic.

In a NBC6 Miami investigation on charges at area trauma centers, most of the numbers were kept out of the main story and shown as visuals or infographics.

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