Humanizing Tragedies

By Kaitlin Jansen, Special to the News Media Alliance

Mass shootings, other gun violence and international bombings – in an era of repetitive news cycles and seemingly constant tragedies, it’s sometimes easy for readers to feel distanced from the impact of each incident. Casualty numbers and foreign countries become difficult concepts to grasp as readers consume one negative story after another.

In an interview with the New York Times this summer, psychologist Anita Gadhia-Smith said that there is “heightened alarm, but there can also be some desensitization that’s happening.”

The state of news can be encapsulated in a USA Today headline from last year: “Fatal mass shooting rocks U.S. – again.”

Much bad news has happened since that headline was written – including the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. When faced with these stories, journalists must decide how to present information in a way that is meaningful to readers.

John Cutter, managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel, said that while readers knew how tragic the Pulse shooting was, the Sentinel staff had to determine how to cover the facts while also helping their community grieve.

“We wanted to keep the victims and the community face-forward in this,” Cutter said.

They ended up with a simple front page the next day – a single photo of people grieving with the headline “Our community will heal.”

“People call it an editorial,” Cutter said. “I call it a statement.”

He added that the third page looked more like a traditional front page, reporting facts such as casualties.

“That just didn’t seem like the right tone to strike the first day,” Cutter said.

But in instances outside breaking news, stories may not draw international attention – so how do journalists make readers care?

Through visualization, says Reuben Fischer-Baum, a visual journalist at FiveThirtyEight.

Fischer-Baum said that visuals such as charts can help readers grasp comparisons and can hold a lot more information than text can.

It’s also a matter of catering to the way people consume news, he said.

“I think, unfortunately, that people don’t always have the best attention spans, and being able to break your article apart with something visual and compelling — be it a chart or a photo or video — keeps readers moving through articles,” Fischer-Baum said.

Kevin Uhrmacher, a graphics editor at The Washington Post, agrees that visuals are necessary for important stories.

“As journalists, one of the valuable services we provide for readers is contextualizing major news events and the statistics surrounding them,” Uhrmacher said. “With visuals, we can help people really feel the power of those numbers more than they might just reading them in text.”

Fischer-Baum, along with a team at FiveThirtyEight, created a project to illuminate the facts behind gun deaths in America.

Their interactive graphic appears simple at first glance — dots in uniform lines. But as the user clicks through, (s)he is informed that each dot represents one person that is fatally shot each year — and there are 33,000 dots. With each click, the user learns more about gun death statistics — and sees the facts visualized.

“We knew pretty early on that we wanted to display a square or dot for all 33,000 deaths — we felt it would help convey the scope of the problem, not just the percentage breakdowns of different causes and demographics,” Fischer-Baum said.

Steven Rich, a database editor at The Washington Post’s investigations unit, said visuals and interactivity were also important components of a project he helped build that displays data on officer-involved shootings in the U.S.

“We wanted, from the very beginning, for our readers to be able to not only be able to read about every fatal police shooting we’d documented, but to be able to see where they are and filter for factors like race, gender and whether those who were killed were armed,” he said.

Uhrmacher contributed to a project focusing on mass shootings. The graphic displays the victims as human silhouettes, which Uhrmacher said function as “clear reminders for the reader that there is a human behind each data point.”

“Unfortunately, we can all become numb to those sorts of news events, especially when they happen in quick succession,” he said. “We wanted some way to show people the scale of the entire problem, but also to capture the individual lives lost.”


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