Friday, August 31, 2012

Infographics as a proxy for overall news quality

Truncating the y axis in a bar chart is always a bad idea

I believe that the quality of the infographics in any news publication is usually correlated with the overall quality of the product itself. Good infographics, interactive visualizations, and multimedia narratives are the result of a publication's commitment to invest in innovation and staff. If this hypothesis of mine is true, The Miami Herald is in trouble.

I've been buying the Herald for the past couple of weeks because I was thinking about doing a research project on how regional newspapers use graphs and maps to enhance their stories. I've almost dropped the idea, as the Herald publishes mostly just generic copy from McClatchy —its owner— and wire services, and bland lifestyle and sports stuff. There are notable exceptions: Today, for instance, the paper has a few solid stories (1, 2) by local reporters. I wonder why newspaper folks act surprised when readers give up.

Anyway, the graphics. You may not remember it but the Herald won a Pulitzer prize in 1992-1993 for an amazing investigative special section published after Hurricane Andrew. You can see it here. It's a historical example of precision journalism, and also a visualization feast. What does the Herald offer nowadays? I don't want to be unfair but, based on what I've seen over the last two weeks (I've missed a few days), not much. That's a shame, considering its honorable past. This morning, the paper showcases the piece above, that I am planning to use in class as an example of why truncating the y axis in bar charts is always a bad idea (read Jon Peltier about this). The weather map, the only big information graphic of the day, is a funny case: Many regions in the US have pictograms. Florida doesn't.