Visualizing Data

Instructor: Lena Groeger

Class Time & Location: Tuesdays 3:50-6:30, 6 East 16th Street, Room 602

The best way to reach me is by email at

Class Objective

While the visual presentation of data has been part of news since its earliest days, it’s in the midst of a renaissance. Graphics desks that used to be thought of as “the art department,” outside the “real” work of a newsroom, are quickly becoming a central part of every newsroom’s daily journalism operation. The people who tell visual stories (as opposed to strictly written ones) are expected to be full-fledged journalists with all the same news judgement as their fellow reporters and editors.

The purpose of this class is to learn how to visually tell a clear, honest and compelling journalistic story with data. We’ll learn how to think about the visual presentation of data, how and why it works, and how to do it the right way. At the end of the semester you’ll be able to:

We’ve got a lot of material to cover, but I will not make any assumptions about your existing knowledge, nor are there any prerequisites to taking this class.

During the semester I will think of you as a visual journalist and you should think of me as your editor. I will critique your work and hopefully make it better and stronger. I’ll also encourage you to discuss each other’s work constructively.

There are many rules to learn, and as a professional you’ll learn that many of these rules are particular to your editor and to your newsroom. But it’s also a new and changing discipline. Creative approaches are always welcome — in fact, they’re required. It would be a sad world if every data visualization was a bar chart.


This is not a skills-training class, but rather a class where you’ll learn fundamental concepts in a hands-on way. As a working visual journalist, you will be expected to use a variety of tools to do your work. Your toolbox will vary depending on your strengths – whether you’re a gifted illustrator, an Excel whiz, an experienced programmer or a master Photoshopper.

However, there are a few specific tools that you will need for class:

Microsoft Excel. We’ll be using this to prepare, clean and analyze data (LibreOffice Calc, a free alternative, is also fine). Install this onto your computer as soon as you can.

Adobe Illustrator. We’ll be using this to create the majority of our charts and graphics. Install this onto your computer as soon as you can.

A sketchbook and pens/pencils. We’ll be doing a number of sketching exercises in class.

A laptop. Most of your work will be done on a computer. You are also free to use the class computers.

Note: You are allowed to use a laptop during class, but only for course work (not checking Facebook). Phones must be turned off or on Airplane Mode. 


I’ll determine each of your final grades by the factors described below. Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions.

In-Class Participation 30%

As journalists you’ll be required to be active participants in daily conversations with sources, your colleagues, and your editors. Much of the work in this class will happen between you and your classmates: You’ll take the role of graphics reporter, data analyst, and editor, supporting your colleagues in group projects and in-class critiques. You can’t get much out of the class if you don’t attend and contribute. If you absolutely need to miss a class, you must let me know in advance. 

Note: Participation does not just mean you make a comment during class. I expect each of you to come prepared, to ask each other good questions, to contribute to the discussion in meaningful ways. I'll be assessing each of you based on this Participation Rubric.

Crits 20%

Giving and taking constructive feedback is a crucial life skill. Our crits are not contests. They will above all be respectful. I’ll expect you to take yourselves and each other very seriously. During crits and in small group exercises I expect you to take great pains to be useful to your classmates and to remember how it feels to have your work scrutinized.

Readings & Quizzes 20%

The required book for this class is The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo. I highly recommend you purchase the book as it will be a valuable resource in the future, but you can also check a copy out of the library or read it on reserve at NYU Bobst.

I will also assign short readings for homework, which will include book chapters, academic papers, news articles, etc. I will post each of these readings on Canvas well in advance.

I'll occasionally have very short quizzes in class to assess your understanding of a particular reading or topic.

For those of you who want to dig further, I’ve created a recommended reading list that contains books and articles you’ll find on the desks of visualization professionals everywhere.

Presentations & Final Project 30%

Each of you will be required to do two in-class presentations and a final project this semester.

Adopt a Newsroom

Part of your career in data visualization will involve keeping close tabs on the work in your field. Being able to read a visualization closely and figure out how it works is a key professional -- and life -- skill. So in this class we will lean heavily on looking at, pulling apart, and reproducing (with improvements) the work of others.

I’ve prepared a list of newsrooms around the world that create lots of interesting data visualizations and graphics. Each of you will select a newsroom (or, in some cases, groups of small newsroom), and follow that newsroom all semester long. You’ll check in on its website, read the stories that interest you, and take notes on what graphics they’ve created.

If there are especially interesting graphics (because they’ve very good or even because they’re very bad), or if there ones you don’t understand, you should send me a message and we may talk about them together in class. I will be keeping tabs as well and will call on you while we’re discussing a graphic from that newsroom in class.

Once during the semester you’ll prepare a formal presentation of that news organization’s work. It can be a “greatest hits” or a survey of their most recent work. The presentation will include a few examples and should answer questions like:

What news story does each graphic tell?

Describe, in a few sentences, the “nut graf” of each graphic. Read the story that ran with the graphic, if there is one. Does the graphic help you understand that story better? Do the data and the story agree with each other?

Where does their data come from?

Every chart should have a source line. Where did they get the data? Did they make it themselves? Is it from a FOIA or is it open data? Is it available online? Does this newsroom tackle big data sets they've gathered themselves or mostly focus on small data sets prepared by others?

What techniques do they use?

Bar charts? Circle charts? Choropleth map? etc. Can you determine any of the statistical methods they used?

Who are their strongest staffers?

Look at the bylines. Is it the same people every time? How big is the team? Who are their strongest people?

Are their graphics effective?

If you love them, sing their praises -- but explain why using what you've learned in this course! If they're ugly, wrong or if they misses opportunities, try remaking one yourself. If they mislead, be a zealous prosecutor convincing us why.


Final Project

For the final project you’ll pick a data set to visualize, work to understand it, pitch a story idea to me, and then execute a visualization.

1) Pick a data set.

You can use a data set from a source like, or from a news story whose data is available but for which there was not an effective visualization. In a pinch I can help you find a good data set to use. The data should be clean or easy to clean.

2) Write a data memo.

You’ll write me a short data memo specifying the data set you want to use, the source of the data, the story you’re going to tell with the data (including, if you have a vision for it, the visualization techniques you want to use), and the work you think it will take to execute the visualization. You should wait until I approve the memo before proceeding to the next phase.

3) Acquire, clean and analyze the data.

I’ll teach you a bit about how to clean data but this is a big topic. If it’s an unusually messy or humongous data set you should probably steer clear. You’ll put it into Microsoft Excel (or LibreOffice) and format it for your graphics software to use. Most importantly, you’ll call an expert on your data (like, using a phone) to discuss your approach and what the data set's limitations are.

4) Submit a draft.

As the semester comes to a close, you’ll submit a first draft of your visualization.

5) Present your final visualization.

On the last day of the semester you'll present your final project to the class. I’ll grade it based on how successfully you use the techniques and concepts you learned this semester. 

University Policies

The New School has stated policies on Academic Honesty and Integrity, Intellectual Property, the Free Exchange of Ideas, and Freedom of Artistic Expression. Those apply to this course as they apply to every course here.

I'd just add that plagiarism is an immediate firing offense in every newsroom, and usually a career-ender. Borrowing ideas from each other and riffing off each other's work, especially in visual journalism, is to be expected – even encouraged. Just be explicit about what you're doing and give generous credit. Fabulism – making stuff up and passing it off as factual – is also a capital offense in journalism. The facts will sometimes ruin your graphic. That problem isn't solved by changing the facts.

When in doubt, ask me for help.

Students With Disabilities

Students Disability Services (SDS) assists students with disabilities in need of academic and programmatic accommodations as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In keeping with the university's policy of providing equal access for students with disabilities, any student with a disability who needs academic accommodations must contact SDS. The office will conduct an intake and, if appropriate, the Director will provide an academic accommodation notice for you to bring to me. This letter is necessary in order for classroom accommodations to be provided. Once you provide this notice, the Director will have a schedule a private discussion with the instructor about the accommodations in relation to this course.