After teaching in nearly twenty countries, working with various news organizations around the globe, and organizing the first journalism Massive Open Online Course, at his core, Alberto Cairo stays true to his identity as a journalist. His field is unique – Cairo calls himself an infographics journalist, which, unlike data visualization, means that instead of creating graphs and maps to communicate with citizens, scientists, and other people – His only interest is to inform the public by using graphics.
There are differences between data journalists and infographics journalists, but also a lot of overlap. There is a long, long tradition of news graphics in newspapers and magazines… Maps, charts, visual explanations that complement stories and make these stories deeper.
In his blog, Cairo criticizes the recent trend of Tower Infographics, a long-form static infographic including both images and numbers, mainly because he says that they have “taken over the very word infographic,” and also because they lack interactivity with their audiences. After working for one of Spain’s largest publications for many years, Cairo understands that there are “a lot of benefits in making charts interactive.”
Infographic used to mean something related to informing the public, being true to the data, being true to the integrity of the data… The word is being misused today by people in PR and Marketing… Call them whatever you want, but don’t call them infographics, because their main goal isn’t to inform the public.
Cairo currently spends his time teaching a class called Infographics and Visualization at the University of Miami, where he teaches students how to organize, understand, and communicate data to broad audiences. One of their most recent projects had the students partner with the School of Marine Sciences, where they created a tabloid-size poster that explained and summarized their research on great white sharks.
One of his favorite things about teaching is the diversity of students he has. His courses aren’t only aimed towards journalism students but often include some from the business school, biologists, marine scientists, and others who come to learn how to apply visual journalism techniques to whatever focus they are in. Some advice he gives to them;
Don’t just throw data on the page, try to see what the interesting outliers are, what the interesting stories in the data are, where the situation is worse and better, try to arrange your graphic to create a written story… Instead of just writing it, compliment your written copy with graphs and maps that strengthen your main points.
In September, Cairo published The Functional Art; an introductory book that will be the first part of a series he’s developing. With four parts including profiles of data visualizers and a DVD featuring 90 minutes of video lectures, Cairo says that this work is a summary of what he’s learned thanks to his 15 years of experience in the field.
He was surprised to learn that apart from his intended audience of journalists and designers, others like scientists and cartographers began buying his book in order to learn traditional journalism techniques that would help them in their own expertise. “I believe that is wonderful… We share a passion for uncovering the truth, conveying the truth to the public, and empowering the public.”
Above is one of the examples that Cairo uses when explaining how to tell a story using graphs and maps is a piece about population and fertility rates, called Brazil’s Demographic Opportunity (found in Chapter 8 of his book). Creating a narrative through information and communicating a complex idea to the public is one of the key ideas that Cairo hopes to teach through his class, book, and as a journalist.
Designers are out there producing graphics without worrying about the quality of information, without worrying about traditional journalistic values – ethics, for instance – about presenting the story properly… I see many people worrying too much about the aesthetics of the graphic… These are extremely important, but they should come after the good data, double-checked, and reliable information.
Some of his greatest inspirations from others in his field include people at The Washington Post, The New York Times, El Mundo (Spain), Época Magazine (Brazil), National Geographic, and Moritz Stefaner.
You can download the first three chapters of Cairo’s book for free on his website, and follow him on Twitter (@albertocairo) to keep up with the development of his series. Be sure to check back with with us for another Spotlight Interview next week – and, in the mean time – keep charting!