The job of a journalist is to convey the facts. But when the facts conflict with an individual’s preexisting beliefs, they often tend to get pushed aside. That’s where the research of Nyhan and Reifler comes into play. In their 2011 study “Opening the Political Mind,” Nyhan and Reifler conduct a series of experiments to determine whether the process of “self-affirmation” as well as graphical representations can help better break down the user’s inherent biases so as to communicate the facts at hand regarding politically sensitive issues.
The study is particularly relevant as it applies to data journalism. First, the connection between self-affirmation and a more ready willingness to accept uncomfortable facts shows that emotion can often be an effective tool in helping to communicate data. As such, it reminds us that our job as data journalists is not only to convey the facts, but to deliver them in an intuitive, visually-pleasing package that will warm the user emotionally and subconsciously to being more accepting of the data itself. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the study demonstrates the powerful effects that graphical representations can have over text alone. Texts often have subtexts, at least in the perception of the audience, while an accurate graphical representation tends to come across as a more objective and authoritarian source of information. That’s not to say that graphics can’t skew the facts in many of the same ways as text can – indeed, an out-of-scale, poorly-designed chart can often be as unconsciously deceiving as a “he said, she said” news story – but rather that users tend to be more convinced by ‘seeing’ the data than by reading it alone.