A collaboration between public radio station WNIJ and students in NIU’s data visualization courses helps to build student portfolios and improve reporting in the region.

In 2020, NIU graduate student Bharat Kale prepared graphics to accompany WNIJ reporting in collaboration with the ddiLab joint effort of the Department of Computer Science and School of Art and Design

In early 2016, local public radio station WNIJ obtained a data set related to overdose deaths in a northern Illinois county. WNIJ reporter Jenna Dooley (who has since become the station’s news director) recognized that the data was important but was unsure how to make sense of it and use it to inform the station’s reporting on the issue.

“Since we’re located here on NIU’s campus, I decided to draw on our connections with the university. I contacted Michael Papka, who specializes in data visualization, to ask for his help,” says Dooley. “We met several times over the course of the semester to explore the data, and I used that to inform the questions we asked during the newsgathering process.”

This semester-long collaboration resulted in a series of on-air reports, accompanied by a digital presentation of user-friendly graphs, maps and other data visualizations. But even more importantly, it marked the start of a partnership between WNIJ and the data visualization courses first taught in NIU’s Department of Computer Science, and later in the School of Art and Design, as well.

Taught by Joe Insley (School of Art and Design) and Michael Papka (Department of Computer Science), these interdisciplinary courses teach students to transform data into images, applying programming, art and design skills across a wide range of domains. The partnership with WNIJ allows students to use their knowledge in a real-world setting and build their professional portfolios.

“Working with Jenna and her team of reporters has been a great experience for our students,” says Insley. “They get to see their work have a positive impact in a professional setting. Not only do they see how their final visualizations provide insight to the reader, but also how their exploratory visualizations can help inform the reporters as they are developing the story. Contributing to an interdisciplinary team is a valuable real-world experience.”

Speaking of real-world experience – it turns out that working with real data can be a complicated and messy process.

“The stories Jenna (and now a wider WNIJ team) bring us are timely and contain all the things we expect our students to see when doing data visualization outside the classroom,” says Papka. “This means the students see how messy data can be, how it can be formatted wrong or be incomplete. They can see that the answers are not known in advance, and that unexpected results can guide the news team but also require verification that the results are correct.”

In recent years, students have worked with WNIJ reporters on a wide range of stories that are enhanced by the use of graphics. Topics have included local voting trends, video gaming revenues and traffic stops. During the course of the semester, students are given a project outline and a data set. They develop graphics, and the WNIJ reporters and students explore the data together. WNIJ shares the students’ final products on the station’s website, crediting the students so the work becomes part of their professional portfolio.

While the NIU students gain real-world experience, learning to communicate effectively and see a project through from start to finish, WNIJ also benefits from the collaboration.

“The marriage of data visualization and journalism increases accuracy and makes the story more relevant,” say Dooley. “The ‘why’ is often the most compelling aspect to the narrative version of the story. Data visualization helps identify the ‘what,’ which enables the reporter to ask their sources ‘why’ the topic matters in their lives.”

For example, in the spring semester of 2021, WNIJ Reporter Chase Cavanaugh reported on the loss of revenue many Illinois cities experienced due to the closure of video gaming terminals during the pandemic. NIU students put municipal revenue numbers into graphics that showed just how dramatic this decline was. Cavanaugh joined the virtual class on several occasions to offer feedback on the graphics and then shared with the students what he had learned after interviewing several local officials, who described how this affected their bottom lines.

The finished product hit the airwaves on March 16 and included a digital slideshow featuring the student-produced graphics.

“Although traditionally public radio is an audio medium, more and more listeners are coming to us through our website and mobile app,” says Dooley. “This data visualization partnership allows us to make better use of all the tools at our disposal to communicate clearly with our audience.”

The partnership also includes the NIU Data, Devices and Interaction Laboratory (ddiLab), where art and computer science students work side by side on data visualization projects, and it has influenced the Journalism 354 class Dooley teaches in NIU’s Department of Communication, where she shares the data visualizations to show students how to use data to inform stories and better communicate with audience members.

Dooley and Papka both emphasize journalistic ethics and standards of accuracy in their teaching because, in the words of Papka, “Data visualization provides a way to convey a lot of information in a condensed and concise way, but also provides an opportunity to mislead people.”

“If a visualization seems too good to be true or includes too far an outlier, it is incumbent upon the reporter to double check for accuracy,” Dooley tells her students. “Maybe there is an explanation for the outlier and that becomes the focus of the story. Just as often, a piece of the data is incorrect or missing and needs to be updated in order for the visualization to be correct.”

WNIJ 89.5 FM is one of two non-commercial public broadcasting radio stations managed by Northern Public Radio, the broadcast arm of Northern Illinois University, and provides independent, local, national and international news. The mission of Northern Public Radio is to enrich, inspire and inform adults in northern Illinois through programs and services that share ideas, encourage thought, give pleasure and create community.

Learn more at wnij.org.

This story originally appeared in the May 18, 2021 edition of NIU Today