May 12th, 2011
Over the weekend, Juan Giner and Alberto Cairo wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog about the blurring of fact and fiction in newspaper infographics following the death of Osama Bin Laden. I was asked to endorse it and was happy to agree. As it happened I had been discussing exactly these issues with Michael Robinson, head of graphics at the Guardian and Observer, a couple of days before.
I tweeted a link earlier this week and was surprised and gratified by the numer of retweets and the general interest and support. The Bin Laden graphics in the Nieman article are just the latest examples. The most egregious moment was probably the night of September 11th 2001. It seemed like every newspaper in the world felt that anything involving planes and explosions had to be accompanied by an infographic, despite the fact that at the time nobody had any reliable information about the exact details of the events. The results are summed up in this brillant diagram by Jan Schwochow.
The white arrows show the different paths given for the planes in a selection of newspaper and magazine graphics. What they have in common is that they are all wrong (and many are aerodynamically impossible!). The coloured arrows show the correct paths.
I suppose that I had come to accept that many editors, who may otherwise be perfectly serious journalists, are happy to suspend their usual standards for accuracy and truth when it comes to information graphics. They would never dream of asking a reporter to write a story in the absence of facts. But if accurate information is not available, many are happy to encourage their infographics teams to fill the gap with imagination and speculation. The fact is that many editors see information graphics not as a form of journalism but as illustration or even decoration — just something to set the mood.
I’m glad that Juan and Alberto decided to raise this issue and it has reminded me that we must educate the editors we work with to understand that design and infographics are journalism too, and the same ethical standards as for text and photography should apply.