What is visual journalism?

  • 10 May 2013
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So what is visual journalism? It's a question I get asked a lot - not just by friends and family but by many colleagues in the more traditional walks of media life.

For many in the newer fields of digital journalism, it's simply about visualising data, or using graphics such as maps or charts to explain stories - and of course it is about that.

But in the BBC, it's also about bringing together our TV designers with the teams that create the more high-end multimedia graphics online and harnessing the unprecedented creative opportunities that brings. So we want to use our skill and creativity to engage and inform our audiences on the biggest, most significant stories, providing insightful, personal and shareable visual explanations.

And I think we visual journalists are in a unique position to help the BBC meet some of the key challenges we face when we are trying to make sure our audience gets what it needs and expects from us.

Firstly, in a world where many organisations are covering pretty similar stories in often pretty similar kinds of ways, visual journalism can bring a real distinctiveness to the way the BBC covers the news agenda. For example, something we have pioneered is our family of calculators which allow the online audience to put their own details in to put themselves at the heart of the story, and get a result they can share with friends and colleagues.

Recently, with our colleagues in BBC Lab UK, we developed the class calculator which told you which of seven new classes you were as defined by new research. Our TV news colleagues did a report to go along with the online offer and used the calculator with members of the public. The result was nearly seven million page views and 50 social media shares for each 1,000 views. We also have calculators on fuel prices, inflation and - coming soon - the human age of dogs.

Secondly, BBC News is an old and trusted friend and guide to many millions. But when we present them with the sort of visual journalism we are developing, we get responses like "Wow - I didn't think the BBC did things like that" and "That's really innovative". It really shows the audience that we can do new things that are modern, lively and interactive. Take, for example, our use of 3D modelling interactively, designed by our TV designers for use in bulletins, that we use online and which allow the audience to interact with.

We did that to explain the tragic events in the house of Paralympic star, Oscar Pistorius, and also to explore the sea floor with our science editor, David Shukman, using our virtual reality studio in New Broadcasting House, putting interactive hotspots on the video. We will keep trying to perfect and develop new techniques.

And lastly, visual journalism can effectively help our audience to understand a story better. They say a picture can be worth a thousand words and that's certainly true. A simple map or graphic can really convey a story in a visual way that can be immediately grasped whether it's on TV or on online.

We want to develop our data journalism in the coming months and find new ways of visualising large amounts of data that tell the key points of a story, building on what we already do like the story of the sharp fall in the number of young police officers in England and Wales.

It's exciting to be doing something new and innovative. I have a feeling we've only just begun to scratch the surface of what's possible.

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