An Evening with Chart Girl at MIT


I have to admit, when I do complicated stories, I think in charts. I’ve now encountered someone else whose mind works the same way – and she may just parlay her chart making into a business.

Hilary Sargent is Chart Girl. (That’s her logo up top.) She’s a journalist with a keen interest in investigations who likes to visualize stories in the form of boxes and bubbles – useful tools to describe sometimes very confusing and convoluted news stories.

Her website, features her very first chart – produced last November about the David Petraeus Affair in the U.S.. That story about the former CIA director (Petraeus) was a confusing web of sexual affairs, FBI investigations and messy media coverage. After a discussion with a friend, Sargent broke it down into a chart scribbled on a piece of paper. Then Boing Boing posted it and Chart Girl was born.

Now Sargent uses software tools to present her elaborate charts on everything from the misinformation spread after the Boston Marathon bombing to the Rob Ford scandal.

“My brain is now rewired for charting,” said Sargent last week at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston.

As a guest of the Comparative Media Studies and Writing program at MIT, Sargent chatted about her trajectory from journalism grad to new mom to being named one of Time Magazine’s Best 50 Websites of 2013.

(She’s also done a lot of non-journalism work as an investigator for law firms, corporations, NGOs and political campaigns.)

With no formal training in graphic design, Sargent’s site features several different kinds of charts. Her artful story-telling process has now been featured by Reuters, AtlanticWire, Business Insider and her investigative skills have also come in handy lately at the Boston Globe.

I think it’s a very cool way to visualize information on the web. Like so many journalists these days she’s self taught when it comes to acquiring new technology skills. But what would make her charts even better would be to make them more interactive, rather than static – and if these charts were easily viewed on tablet and mobile platforms. (I only had my ipad at MIT and couldn’t read the content.)

But Sargent has inspired me. On big, complicated investigations I ALWAYS do charts – but with sharpies and big sheets of paper. Many times I’ve sold an original story to a producer after breaking it down to its essential parts on a chart. Web developers have built those charts to accompany my stories. Now I’m learning how to build my own. Thanks Chart Girl!

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