Election Data Storytelling on US News Networks: Could They Do Better?

A critique of the 2020 election night data storytelling

Andy Cotgreave
Nov 9, 2020 · 5 min read
A side by side comparison of screen graphics from 1968 and 2020. Guess what? They’re both tables of numbers.

How was election night for you? For me, it was underwhelming.

That emotion is not to do with the politics, but with the data storytelling by the US TV networks. Through the night, I tweeted about the good and bad data visualisations I was seeing (see them all here: #ElectionViz).

I came away disappointed and with one big question. Why is there such a big gulf between the news websites’ charts and US TV networks? News sites offer sophisticated experiences, whereas the networks offer, er, county maps and some numbers? There is not a great deal of difference between this year’s screen and those from 1968.

Let’s take CNN as an example. John King, like many of the anchors on the networks, is an amazing commentator. His knowledge of the US political landscape and his ability to narrate events is beyond impressive. Unfortunately, his words were not supported by visuals that made it easier for an audience to follow along.

Screen shot from CNN’s screen graphics showing Orange County
Orange County as seen by CNN, 8pm on Nov 3

Starting off from a national map and then zooming into a county is sensible. It anchors the audience in a sense of place. However, once zoomed in, the physical geography is no longer the primary information we, or the anchors need. Almost without fail, once zoomed in, they pose three data-driven questions:

  1. What is the current split between candidates?

Despite those being the near universal questions, the screen is dominated by the county shape. What if you changed the display to answer the three questions? It could look something like this:

A remake of the CNN screen with bar charts and slope charts for Orange County
A remake of the CNN screen with bar charts and slope charts for Orange County
A reimagined screen for CNN

What changes did I make?

  1. The geography is reduced to a thumbnail; the information is there, but it is not dominant.

These are not complex charts, they use pre-attentive attributes to get insight to us, and the anchor, quicker. Length is used in the bar chart showing number of votes: no need to mentally compare each number any more. Angle is used on the slope chart at the right to show how the parties changed between 2016 and 2020.

All the major networks I followed used a similar template: map-driven graphics with little thought to the minor tweaks that could have greatly enhanced the stories being told. Steve Kornacki on MSNBC did take full advantage of the sports-style telestration board with extensive use of hand-drawn numbers and circles. These enhanced the visual power of his explanations.

Steve Kornacki on MSNBC using annotations to enhance his story
Steve Kornacki on MSNBC using annotations to enhance his story
Steve Kornacki on MSNBC using annotations to enhance his story

Beyond the maps, I was surprised at how few visualizations the networks created.

There was the occasional line chart, including a nice one from NBC. It was well laid out, with clear labelling and an identifiable data source. My only quibble was the positioning of the party annotations. It’s always nice if you can put the category label at the end of line itself.

A good line chart from NBC, improved by labels alongside the lines
A good line chart from NBC, improved by labels alongside the lines

In any TV coverage, it’s only a matter of time before you see a pie chart of some sort. The first I saw was also on NBC. Take a look at this, and try and decode the pie chart. Pay attention to how many times your eye moves across the chart as you do so:

A screenshot from NBC with a terrible 3d donut chart
A screenshot from NBC with a terrible 3d donut chart

Let me guess, you went cross-eyed trying to decode the numbers and the segments? How about if you showed this as a bar chart instead? How long does it take to parse the information now?

Side-by-side comparing the original 3d donut with an easier to read bar chart
Side-by-side comparing the original 3d donut with an easier to read bar chart
Which is easier and faster to read? The donut or the bars?

As I watched news website live feeds though the night, it was clear that the traditional print media are streets ahead in terms of data storytelling. It’s not because their browser-based graphical displays are complex, or that they only appeal to data geeks like me. It’s because they consider the questions an audience has and focus the display on delivering the answers as quickly as possible.

Side-by-side from 1968 and 2020: basically the same thing… Tables of numbers!
Side-by-side from 1968 and 2020: basically the same thing… Tables of numbers!

What seems to be missing is the fundamental goal any data storyteller needs to ask:

  • What are the key questions I need to answer?

On reflection, I was surprised by the information design conservatism in the US TV Networks. Comparing coverage to 1968, for example, other than the addition of colour, the displays are still tables of numbers and the odd map. I did #ElectionViz for the UK General Election in December 2019, and the visual maturity of Sky News and BBC were far further ahead than the US networks.

As the dust settles and we move towards 2024, I would love to see a little bit more visual sophistication to support the amazing anchors.

Andy Cotgreave is co-author of The Big Book of Dashboards and Evangelist at Tableau. He hosts If Data Could Talk and can be found on Twitter (@acotgreave) or LinkedIn talking about all things data storytelling. Get in touch to let him know your thoughts on the TV networks’ charts during the election.

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