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How Best to Tell a Story

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how human rights organizations employ data visus policymakers, news media, and research communities increasingly rely on big data, alization in ongoing research and advocacy.” the ability to create good visual represenSatterthwaite’s work on data visualization is part tations has become key to conveying complicated of a series of interdisciplinary collaborations in which ideas to a more general audience. But human rights she hopes to encourage innovation in the ways that organizations that regularly use empirical analyses human rights workers document and demonstrate in their research have nevertheless been slow to violations. In a chapter she is contributing to The use data visualizations. Professor of Clinical Law Transformation of Human Rights Fact-Finding (coMargaret Satterthwaite ’99 and NYU Polytechnic edited by Philip Alston, 2015), Satterthwaite joins School of Engineering’s Enrico Bertini and Oded Princeton researcher Justin Simeone in looking at Nov received a grant in June to further their research whether, as researchers incorporate quantitative exploring how advocacy organizations can effec- methods into human rights research, they can or tively employ information graphics to tell human should Sykes, follow Kindler, theRevesz same disciplinary standards that rights stories. guide social science researchers. “Somebody might be Traditionally, human rights advoSatterthwaite, Bertini, and Nov really compelled by cacy has been based on testimonial have already completed two initial one story of a person evidence, a methodology that grew user-based studies that investigate getting killed. But if how readers respond to visual prefrom practices of law and journalism. sentations of data. One study veri- you tell them there are People respond emotionally to stories, 10,000 of those people and the goal of human rights research, fies that data visualization is a more being killed, their effective tool than text in conveying after all, is to persuade policymakers empathy suddenly statistics to the reader. In another and the public to take action to preshuts down.” study focusing on deceptive visuvent or stop violations. “One of the alization, Satterthwaite and her colgreat strengths of the human rights laborators show how it is possible to deceive readers movement is our ability to tell the story of the vicby using correct data but changing the expected tim, of the survivor, and compel people to act,” says visualization. Inverting the axis on a line graph, for Satterthwaite, who co-edited the 2008 book Human example, can lead a reader to believe that an increas- Rights Advocacy Stories. “That is an ethical duty that ing trend is, in fact, decreasing. we have, and we should not abandon it.” “It was quite disturbing how easy and how The incorporation of social science methods into intense was the effect of deceptive visualization,” human rights research has the potential to amplify Satterthwaite says. Understanding how readers the power of storytelling. “Somebody might be really comprehend and react to information graph- compelled by one story of a person getting killed,” Satics is key to helping researchers avoid acciden- terthwaite says. “But if you tell them there are 10,000 tally overstating or understating their findings. of those people being killed, their empathy suddenly Satterthwaite also notes that it is important to shuts down.” Demonstrating the right to equal access recognize the dangers of deceptive data visual- to drinking water, however, is best shown visually ization, which, out of the zeal to convince, could through statistics such as the proportion of a popube used to mislead the audience. lation that lives within a kilometer of safe water and the prevalence of diseases caused by unsafe water. Now, with the grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, SatterthSatterthwaite hopes the trio’s work will guide waite says the next phase of research will be to researchers to make the best choices in employing work with various human rights organizations the methods at their disposal. “It may simply be to implement these findings. “The hope,” she a question of what kind of evidence you need,” says, “is for it not to be just an academic study she says, “depending on your audience and your purpose.” Rachel Burns but a collaboration with real-world impact on

NYU Law Magazine 2015  

The annual magazine from NYU School of Law.