Tell a Story Instead of Just Showing the Data

Be a storyteller, not a number cruncher.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

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Take a look at the following graph of the number of homicides and homicide rate per year in Baltimore, Maryland:

Bar and line graph showing the number of homicides and the homicide rate per year in Baltimore, with a clear pattern of increased numbers and rate after 2015 after years of decline.
What story do you see? (Data via the FBI Uniform Crime Report.)

If you are not from Baltimore, you might wonder what is going on and why the number and rate of homicides jumps in 2015. You might not know of the daily shootings and almost daily homicides that happen in Baltimore. And you might not know that crime in Baltimore is concentrated in the most disadvantaged and marginalized locations and populations of Baltimore.

To understand all that, I would need to tell you a story. The story would talk about Baltimore as a city from its foundation to modern day. It would tell you about the segregation seen in the city since well before the end of slavery and well into the 21st century. I would tell you about “red lining” and how it predetermined where wealth would be concentrated in Baltimore and who would be left out.

Image of a delapidated building with windows broken or boarded up.
It doesn’t have to be this way.

I would then tell you of the historical excesses of Baltimore’s police force against some of the citizens they serve, and how most of those on the receiving end of those excesses are Black young men. Perhaps I’ll even tell you about the ubiquitous lie that Black young men are universally “thugs” and “prone to violence,” thinking reflected by many (not all) law enforcement officers when they have to deal with a Black young man.

From there, the story would shift to a day in April 2015, when a Black young man named Freddie Gray was approached by Baltimore police officers. He was arrested for possession of an “illegal knife.” The officers put him in the back of a police van, unrestrained. By the time he arrived at the police station, he had received deadly injuries.

He would die shortly thereafter.

Even as most people were peaceful in their demonstrations against the violence inflicted on Freddie Gray, other protests over the homicide exploded into full-fledged riots in different parts of Baltimore.

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René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

DrPH in Epidemiology. Associate/JHBSPH. Adjunct/GMU. Epidemiologist. Father. Husband. (He/Him/His/El)