Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The thin line between fact and speculation

In any reputable Visual Journalism operation there's only one commandment that really matters: "thou shall never speculate." It's the unwritten law that sets apart illustration from information graphics by its very definition. However, every time major breaking news coverage erupts, the temptation of creating speculative pieces is powerful and enticing, just like the Dark Side of the Force.
I know, it is a very thin line, so very easy to cross. Even easier when there's lots of space and expectations to fill.
Today, after taking an initial look at a limited number of examples of the coverage of Osama bin Laden's death by newspapers and newspaper's websites, I observed three basic classes of graphics:

Class A: Infographics with no deviation whatsoever from the known information.

Let's start with my home turf, the Washington Post

The Washington Post A1
The WaPo went with a simple, austere and elegant 3d diagram created by Todd Lindeman, based on official information released by government sources, and photographic reference. The graphic's text sticks to the known and confirmed facts and avoids any deviation from the norm.
The interactive version also adds some 3D cartographic context a timeline and description of traditional Muslim burial practices. All of those elements are in sync with the overall coverage of the story.

New York Times Interactive
The New York Times opted to follow almost the exact pattern. Once again, a clean-cut — but well-done, on-script render — of Osama's compound, a 3D cartographic terrain map and a timeline.  The online version also includes the usual photo-flipper with images of the operation's scene.

Boston Globe interactive
I have had no access to a copy of the Boston Globe today, but judging by its interactive Javier Zarracina's team also went with a similar approach. The infographic sticks to known facts and adds  some very elegant and cool animation textures here and there, making their version fun but without sliding into "Imaginationland".

For what I've seen so far, most US papers pretty much followed the same basic design in their information graphics and visual coverage of the incident.

Class B: Infographics with some speculation but mostly based on the known facts.

The team of the Spanish diary El Mundo fall into this category with their double truck.

El Mundo's double truck
 The team  directed  by Juantxo Cruz created an attractive and well researched all-in-one piece that lacks of nothing: a detailed description of the typical gear of a Navy SEAL, a step-by-step description of DNA-based identification, timeline and a "reconstruction" of the attack. 
El Mundo's piece entered speculation territory by describing the location of the helicopters, its layout operation and, of course, the "reconstruction" of the shooting inside Bin Laden's room.
Interesting enough is their interactive: no extra sauce there, just a locator and the official diagram of the complex.

El Pais graphic
Also in Spain, El Pais took it a notch further by not only showing the battle order of the operation, the exact location of U.S. troops and helicopters, but also the precise position of Bin Laden's men around the complex. I was also surprised to discover how a mountain range suddenly appeared just a few yards from the complex when pretty much every satellite image of the area shows flat terrain.

Infographic speculation was not only the realm of some European papers. Thompson Reuters, the veteran, reputable wire agency also added some "pizzaz" to their world coverage:

On that note, one detail I really liked from European papers is the inclusion of a diagram of a SEAL in full gear, like this one from Liberation:

Liberation graphic
I was also positively surprised to see how Le Monde was already a day ahead with a graphic about the network of different Islamic extremist organizations worldwide.

Class D: What were they thinking?

Just a couple of fun examples in this category.

Graphic from The Daily Mail
The London tabloid Daily Mail, which sells millions of copies, went full commando with this "jewel" that defies any definition as an information graphic but it's a lot of fun to look at. Please note the totally useless arrow below one of the Black Hawks, the exchange of heavy phaser fire between "bad guys" and The Avengers and the diagram explaining how Chuck Norris single–handedly shoots down Bin Laden, his wives and his escort, after kicking down the room's door. It's all there. Really.

Another Pièce de résistance comes from from UOL, a major internet service provider in Brazil. Under the title: "Learn how the U.S. operation to kill Osama Bin Laden happened" the site offers a slideshow of napkin sketches that describe sequentially the order of events.

Update: My friend Ninian Carter, who also happens to be a veteran Visual Journalist has posted today a huge selection of graphics on the same topic on his blog  GraphicGibbon.  Also a must-read is Charles Apple's in-depth and exhaustive analysis of how most of U.S papers treated the raid on Bin Laden's complex.

And just one more thing....

a fellow visual journalist Sarah Slobin made last night a very good point: what about the actual reporting in our graphics? Even with handouts and official information pouring all around us there's also the duty, as journalists, to compare those with our own souces.
Graphic from The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal clearly reflects this principle. Not the prettier of the bunch, but the graphic does offer quality reporting. As Sarah explains they "paired the briefing material with additional reporting" nailing down details like which floor Bin Laden was on, and "omit other details" they thought were too sympathetic, such as where the women and children were sheltered when the helicopter was destroyed.http://www.lemonde.fr/mort-de-ben-laden/infographie/2011/05/03/la-carte-des-reseaux-terroristes-islamistes_1516115_1515627.html

1 comment:

Tim Broderick said...

Very cool feature. I had limited time and resources (one-person dept.) and was trying to rely on our services but wasn't seeing things come through beyond a general map.

I finally went to the DOD site and downloaded the briefing stuff myself, putting together a quick scene-setter that got up quickly on the web and that would later run with the latest version of the wire story on how things went down.


Gotta give props to the DOD artists - they're getting better.