Journalism through numbers: Alumna tells stories with statistics

If you turned to the internet for insights leading up to the 2020 presidential election, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Anna Wiederkehr’s work.

Wiederkehr, a 2012 visual communications alumna, is the senior visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight, a website that uses statistical data to explore everything from sports to politics. As the design leader of the team, she edits other journalists’ work, leads critiques and ensures things look and feel FiveThirtyEight across the board. 

Having a journalistic background, as opposed to one in design or computer science, has been an asset. “I have that edge of understanding editorial and understanding that it’s not always about the beauty of the design and the technical implementation — it’s also about if the story is relevant and what the editorial drive is behind why we’re publishing it,” she says.

Telling stories with data has helped her to create work that is trustworthy and compelling. “FiveThirtyEight is almost primarily data-driven work,” Wiederkehr says. “I think people are much more willing to see us as a credible organization based on the type of data journalism that we produce.” 

Her father, a geography professor at South Carolina, brought her to tour the College of Information and Communications while she was in high school. That’s when she met associate professor Van Kornegay.

“Anna stood out before she was ever a student,” Kornegay says. “I could just tell by the way she talked that she was full of energy and full of life. I was teaching a workshop on animation, and I invited her to come and learn. It was obvious to me pretty quickly that she was really talented and a quick learner.”

The two have been in contact ever since. He sees himself as more of a coach to her than a mentor, cheering her on and pointing her to resources and opportunities. “Being a mentor seems like you have a lot to teach a person but she’s a self-starter,” Kornegay says. “I knew right away that she was a student who was going to be better than me real quick.” 

When Wiederkehr graduated, she took a role that was web- and graphic design-focused, but she got more into data visualization after a couple of years.

“I was creating really amazing websites and explorable databases, but it wasn’t the same audience that a newspaper or news website serves,” she says. “I wanted to approach it like that and try my hand at creating work for a wide and large audience.”  

Storytelling is a critical element of data visualization. “If you don’t have a sense of how to take data and make a story out of it, make it accessible, memorable or relevant to an audience, then knowing how to scrape a database and turn it into a graph is not necessarily that helpful unless you’re a really good storyteller,” Kornegay says. 
Wiederkehr hopes the work she’s doing to tell those stories at FiveThirtyEight will help people make more informed decisions. “I think that data is helpful in this very polarizing world that we live in and helpful when people have a lot of different information coming at them from a bunch of different places,” she says.   

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