Humanizing data: Connecting numbers and people

Jan 25, 2022 in Data Journalism
Human face with data

Humanizing data is all about breathing life into numbers. Doing so successfully is the challenge journalists face as they cover global events, from the pandemic and migration to  conflict and terrorism.

Data literacy trainer Tricia Govindasamy reminds reporters that data scientists generate valuable statistics, but she cautions: “A spreadsheet is just numbers until a human face is put to them.” 

The data product manager for Code for Africa, Govindasamy coaches reporters on how to take a new slant on something they already do well: interviewing. When faced with a data set, reporters should question the numbers as if they were a person. Interviewing the data can flesh out story ideas, identify new angles and lead to human sources, said Govindasamy.

If a data set documents devastation caused by flash floods, for instance, the reporter should study the numbers to determine: Which villages were affected? Where are the survivors now? How many lost loved ones? With this information, reporters are able to humanize the tragedy. Data becomes a guide to the human condition, helping create change, accountability and impact that otherwise might be ignored.

Govindasamy cited The Pandemic Poachers as an example of how humanizing data strengthened a story. For their report, InfoNile interviewed local communities about the consequences of the pandemic as restrictions halted tourism and impacted daily life. “The human touch brought the issue to life,” she said.

Scientific research supports Govindasamy’s premise. Psychologist Paul Slovic uses the terms “compassion fade” and “psychic numbing” to explain how the brain responds to numbers that have no human connection. “If readers don’t relate to the information, they are less likely to act and use it,” said Slovic, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the president of Decision Research, a collection of scientists who study the human psyche. His advice: “Don’t just throw numbers at people. That’s the worst way to go about it.”

This begs the question: How useful are data sets if they don’t resonate with the audience?

Slovic expands this theory in a co-authored paper about psychic numbing. “Large numbers have been found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling)...On the one hand, we respond strongly to aid a single individual in need. On the other hand, we often fail to prevent mass tragedies — such as genocide — or take appropriate measures to reduce potential losses from natural disasters,” reads an excerpt. “We believe this occurs, in part, because as numbers get larger and larger, we become insensitive; numbers fail to trigger the emotion or feeling necessary to motivate action.”  

Case in point: When the body of two-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey in September 2015, a photograph capturing the image went viral, sparking an outpouring of aid for refugees and policy changes on migration. 

The death toll in Syria numbered in the hundreds of thousands with scant international response. Suddenly, a tiny corpse face down on a beach moved the public in ways statistics could not. “Overnight, that picture woke up the world. People got emotionally connected to the problem,” said Slovic. “Generally, if there’s something people can do to help, they will do it. If they don’t feel they can make a difference, they get turned off.”

He advises journalists to:

  • Convey a strong connection to people in their stories. 
  • Personalize events through the eyes of those experiencing them.  
  • Put themselves in the shoes of those who are suffering. 
  • Talk to people on the ground for firsthand details.

The following are examples that exemplify the relationship between numbers and the human condition.

The New York Times’ COVID-19 coverage 

The New York Times won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for public service for chronicling the toll of COVID-19 at home and abroad.  “We strove every day not to be so focused on the numbers that we forgot the people behind them,” said assistant managing editor Marc Lacey.

The newspaper’s database of COVID-19 cases and deaths was sourced from the websites of hundreds of state and county health authorities, using a combination of manual and automated processes. Among the ways the dead were memorialized include: 

What Loss Looks Like

Readers were asked to submit photographs of objects that reminded them of loved ones who died over the last year from COVID-19 or other causes. The images and personal stories were published digitally as an interactive feature that became a virtual memorial.

Those We’ve Lost

The Times’ obituaries editor solicited contributions from the newspaper’s bureaus in the U.S. and around the world. The Times informed readers: “This series is designed to put names and faces to the numbers.” Starting in March 2020, the series profiled more than 500 people who lost their lives to the coronavirus; the project ended in June of that year.

Wall of Grief

In February 2021, the New York Times featured a graphic on its front page that began with a single dot which grew to 500,000, each representing a life lost in the U.S. to the coronavirus. One year ago, COVID-19 had already resulted in more deaths than World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

Humanizing migration

Shamim Malekmian quickly said yes when editors at the Dublin Inquirer asked her to create an immigration beat for the newspaper. She made it her goal to bring a human perspective to coverage of refugees flowing into Ireland from places like Nigeria and South Africa.

“Immigrants are not just another statistic. Every person has a story that numbers alone can’t tell,” said Malekmian. She has since written about dozens of migrant children who have gone missing while in the state’s care, and reported on asylum-seekers in limbo during the long wait for interviews. She also chronicled racist attacks against people of color in Dublin.  

Malekmian advises others reporting on immigration to:

  • Always go beyond press releases and the official government line.
  • Let the data guide you to stories and new angles. 
  • Establish strong connections with the people you are covering. It’s the best way to gain their trust.
  • Stay in touch with sources and follow up on their stories.
  • On-the-ground reporting is vital, despite limitations placed on the media by refugee centers.

Finding lost mothers

When ProPublica and National Public Radio partnered for the series “Lost Mothers,” they discovered that the U.S. has the highest rate of women who die during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum in the developed world. 

As reporters dug into the data, a human factor was missing. Who were the mothers?

According to Nina Martin, who led the project for ProPublica, when a pregnant woman or a new mother dies in the U.S., her identity is shrouded by medical institutions, regulators, and state maternal mortality review committees. She is almost invisible.

Martin’s team created a first-of-its kind national database of women who died from pregnancy-related complications. They combed social media and crowdfunding sites for leads, and turned to obituaries and Facebook to verify information and locate family and friends. “We knew the statistics,” said Martin, “but we didn’t have the human stories.” 

Nearly 5,000 responses came from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The prize-winning project has been widely credited with sparking change in the U.S. health care system.   

Putting human faces to Lost Mothers was “a conscious choice and a necessity,” said Martin, who now works with Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting.  “People start to yawn if they don’t understand the implications [of the data]. We wanted them to `see’ the story and react.  It definitely was worth the extra time and effort.” 

This article was adapted from a story originally posted on It was edited and republished on IJNet with permission.

More on Paul Slovic’s theories can be found on the website, Arithmetic of Compassion.” Journalists, scholars and students are invited to submit blogs that connect concepts on the website to current events.

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash.