Title Charts Like A Journalist

When you spend the bulk of young adulthood in research-focused academic institutions, like I did, you are steeped in a culture that tells you, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t ever really make a claim. Taking a position on something can be seen as biased. Claiming an insight can be viewed as naïve – replication studies will be needed before anything approaching an insight is possible. Objectivity rules and subjectivity is foolish.

It is that kind of thinking that leads us to just “show the data” to our audiences and let them figure out their own insights. As if they want to do that work on YOUR data!

That culture of never really stating your point is what trains us to write unhelpful chart titles like “Figure 4. Unemployment claims, United States, 2020.”

Instead, let’s take inspiration from the way journalists title their stories. They include some action. “Job losses soar,” not just “job losses” or “unemployment claims.” They say “U.S. virus cases top world,” not just “U.S. virus cases.”

The step I’m asking for here can be as little as adding a word or two that takes a generic title to a place that conveys the urgency that the situation requires. Tiny step, bold move.

Academia might request an “objective” title, like “COVID cases by race/ethnicity” but there’s no such thing as objectivity. The data are always talking, it is just a matter of whether we are brave enough to tell its story. “Black Americans bear the brunt as deaths climb” does the data some justice.

We all have the obligation to do our data justice.

Now journalists take advantage of the story’s headline, not the title of the chart itself. I’m encouraging you to work with the chart itself because it is the chart that will get shared on social media and you want that awesome headline to travel with it. Use sentence case. Use action words. Add a period (or an exclamation point!).

It is ok to stake a claim. This is, in fact, why you have been invited to the meeting. Tell people the story.