That infographic, again - infograhics, researchers and journalism

Hiya readers, 

This is a post more about public outreach by scientists and journalism than linguistic diversity or description; please bear with me.

TL;DR: Journalists are producing more and more composite stories where infographics and fact sheets are being used as separate entities. The interest for the infographic of the world's languages that I made a post about is an example of this. The public's awareness of the world is being shaped more by media outlets and journalists and less by published academic papers, education and/or encyclopaedias. Many of these stories and facts require more context and background to make sense. There is a higher demand than before on consumers of information evaluating and judging the information. Researchers are also becoming more interested in publicly accessible visualisations of their work. Journalists and researchers are very similar, we should collaborate more.

© 2015 Alberto Lucas López,
South China Morning Post  Publishers Ltd
So, I was rather surprised that the post about that infographic (-->) that I made got so very popular, it's had 14,000+ views on blogger and plenty more on Facebook, tumblr etc. Coolers, that's great! As a linguist working with public outreach in precisely diversity linguistics this makes me very happy. After reading comments both on my post and other places where this infographic has been reblogged, I'm also quite impressed with people's knowledge. It seems that people are very aware of linguistics diversity outside of Indo-european.

Be sure to check out the post if you haven't already and if you're even more interested have a look at the comments and the updates, there is a bit more information there now than when I first posted it. 

The original post with the infographic has been shared on I Fucking Love Sciencethe official Facebook pages of the Max Planck Society  and tons of other places (40 k on Facebook, 9000+ on twitter etc). It's gone viral, more so that linguistics infographics tend to (I think). 
I am a scientist and keen on public outreach, I want what we do to reach the public and make sense, which is why I'm maybe sometimes almost a bit too keen on the bigger picture and the grand challenges. All the same, I enjoy spreading knowledge and engage with others that do the same on the internets. This is why I saw it necessary to elaborate on this viral infographic.

I've noticed that there is an increasing trend in journalism that consists of having high quality interactive informative graphics and fact sheets available online that can be whipped out at any moment when a news story relating to that topic pops up. Apparently this was a topic frequently discussed at the international journalism festival in Italy this year and I've noticed people referring to these types of resources as "evergreens" - more or less statics resources of facts that can be used over and over again. News stories are becoming more and more compositional, just like our social media (IFTT), with each part more independent than before. Now, this does not only have to do with information being more readily accessible  people's shifting consumption patterns etc but of course it is primarily about changing media discourse where companies cannot keep as many journalists on staff and need smaller nugget-sized click-baits. This is very important, but not what I want to talk about with you right now, I want to talk about these evergreens and researchers.

This infographic of the linguistic diversity of the world is great in many ways (I especially enjoyed how many people now know about Lahnda), but obviously also it needs some more explaining to make sense. If one doesn't know how Ethnologue divides up languages or what a macro language is, it becomes very confusing. This is where we as researchers must come in and give context and depth to the news story. This is also where we as a global community should realise that we need greater emphasis on critical thinking, information searching, argumentation and logic in primary education. As citizens we are more and more expected to make judgments than we are expected to be able to retrieve stored information from our memory banks - we don't need to remember the year of the battle of Hastings (1066) - we need to be able to tell if a story from Fox News makes sense or not. 

Ethnologue is not the final word on language diversity, we need all the hedges and context of a source whenever relaying information. It might sound boring and cumbersome, but it is necessary. Everywhere where this infographic from the SCMP has been shared, people from all over the world have found something to comment about: there are "missing languages", faulty counting etc. The information provided by the infographic itself and by those reposting it was often very lacking and did not give a full picture of what was going on. That's why I wrote my posts, to answer those questions and help make sense. 

I had a look around at other infographics by SCMP, and as far as I could tell this has been their most successful infographic ever. As I said previously, these kinds of scientific and factual components to news stories, infographics, interactive maps, graphs with columns etc are becoming more and more common in our media feed. It interest me, this is an area where the borders between journalism and academic research becomes more blurred and it is an area where researchers are needed more and more. For public outreach of science, this is a great opportunity to work together with journalists and make these "fact repositories" better. In doing this we might not only be able to answer their questions, but also bring their attention to information we consider interesting but that hasn't reached the mainstream ("news").

Al Jazeera is a great example of a news outlet that has made extensive use of infographics. They've been using a company called A search in their database of infograms for the word "language" shows us many neat examples. Here is for example a little infographic showing the native languages of citizens in Montreal.

Here is another of Russian speakers in Crimea. 

Another more recent example of medias interest for linguistics in combination with fancy animated graphics is this video by Business Insider Science based on this article by Bouckaert et al (2012). This is a Business magazine, covering cultural evolution. Just take that in. I'm all for it, and also a tad bit confused at the same time.

At the same time as journalists are becoming more interested in visualisation of research, academic researchers are too. Here are some examples:

In addition to these kinds of visualisations it's also worth noting that they too are interested in wikipedia just like us.

With journalists becoming more and more interested in these kinds of compositional stories and repositories of facts while at the same time researchers are devoting time and money on similar projects - it makes sense to collaborate. An example of this kind of collaboration between researchers and scientist is the site The Conversation, let's extend that collaboration further and engage with already existing media outlets even more.

Journalism and academic research are different things, but they do overlap in many aspects. The demands of thoroughness, truthfulness, fair treatment etc apply to both, many of the basics of positivism are the same in both disciplines. The differences lie in the motivations and goals, but even there there is often considerable overlap. 

There has never been a better time for the spreading of information and collaboration. I'm very keen on what's going to happen next, I hope you are too. Thank you for reading, back to posts about linguistic diversity and description soon.


Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., ... Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337 (6097), 957-960.

P.S. An example of when lack of context and information about sources goes wrong is unfortunately the very interesting tumblr Land Of Maps. I really like this tumblr, but it rarely quotes any source or gives context to the information. This frequently results in similar comments and issues as the infographic from SCMP ("where is this data from?", "what assumption did they make?", when and where was it published?", "in what context was the information retrieved?" "what are the absolute numbers?" etc). I've made a post about one of the images from there too.

Now, the demand upon tumblrs and other amateur enthusiastic to adhere to journalistic and academic standards is of course considerably less. Still, have a listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson all the same, all you tumblrers out there.
(video by kailaetc | gif by alexstone)


  1. Thanks for the blog i love your blog even i create infographics by own with the help of some websites.

    1. Thanks. Yes, I've seen that service. Perhaps I should give it a go too.

  2. You can find some good infographics at creately diagramming community


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