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Tell Stories with Awareness and Empathy

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain why data communicators have a responsibility to present data through a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive lens.
  • Identify six ways to approach data visualizations and research with empathy.

The Responsibility That Comes with Data Storytelling

As a data communicator, one of the big challenges in visualizing data is ensuring that you're telling stories with empathy, and with an inclusive lens. And data storytelling is more than just being able to create a compelling visualization. According to Brent Dykes, author of Effective Data Storytelling: How to Drive Change with Data, Narrative, and Visuals, data storytelling is “a structured approach for communicating data insights, and it involves a combination of three key elements: data, visuals, and narrative.”

So how does empathy relate to data storytelling? Empathy in this context means understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously knowing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person or group. To be credible, accurate, and fair, empathy should be a top-of-mind priority for all data communicators, and for those who are working directly with communities to gather information and propose solutions. 

This requires due diligence across every aspect of your work, striving to ensure that word choices, terminology, and even the languages that you publish in are fully optimized for your audiences, and mindful of their needs. It’s essential to lead with empathy and do no harm to communities that already experience inequity and discrimination.

Inclusive and thoughtful data visualizations that respectfully reflect the people at the heart of your analysis can help build trust with those communities. As journalist Kim Bui observes, “approaching stories—and people—with more empathy creates better relationships with marginalized communities, builds trust, and increases diverse coverage.” 

Failing to lead with empathy can further exacerbate—and potentially contribute to—the inequities that have shaped the world. 

Unintended Impacts

Look at the average female height chart below. Note that on one end the person is very tall and much larger than the others. On the other end, the person is very small and distanced from the other figures on the chart. If you were a data point on this chart, would you be offended? The cartoon-ish size differential between people in this chart creates ambiguity about the intent and could be interpreted as offensive.

Chart using varying sizes of female figures to show height differences between women in six countries.

When you look at this chart with an inclusive perspective, it’s clear that how we depict people in data visualizations can have unintended consequences, with possible negative impacts to people, their communities, and the policies that touch their lives. 

Six Ways to Communicate Empathy in Your Data Visualizations

How do you know if you’re creating data visualizations with empathy? Start by reviewing these guidelines and see where you can incorporate changes that will improve inclusivity, diversity, and equitable representation of people in your work.

Put people first.
First and foremost, you need to remember and communicate that the data shown reflects the lives and experiences of real people. Data communicators must help readers better understand and recognize the people behind the data. If your data is about people, make it extremely clear who they are.

Use personal connections to help the viewer better connect with the material. 

Photography, illustrations, pull quotes, and oral histories can be featured with data visualizations to help viewers better understand and identify with the content. As a viewer, seeing yourself in a data visualization strengthens your engagement with the data. 

Use a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches to tell a story. 

Most charts and graphs are built on top of spreadsheets or databases of quantitative data. However, focusing on numbers alone without any context can overlook important aspects of a story, including the why and the how

Create a platform for engagement. 

Interactive visualizations and dashboards allow viewers to have a more deeply immersive experience. Another way to engage viewers is to invite feedback so that viewers can share their own reactions and opinions about the topic being visualized. 

Consider how framing an issue can create a biased emotional response.

Point of view and context are critical. How questions are asked, and how issues are framed has a material impact on your audience’s perceptions and their responses to the story you’re trying to tell. 

Recognize the needs of your audience. 

With an audience-centric perspective, you can help ensure that their needs are being met. Best practices include making your visualizations more accessible for people with disabilities, more understandable to a broader audience by avoiding jargon and overly technical language, and more relevant by translating materials into languages most used by your audiences.

In the next unit, take a look at why context matters, and how to evaluate your data with a more inclusive approach.


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