Putting news on the map

The Washington Post’s Election 2012 map. Click to go to The Post’s website.

As Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the east coast of the United States, maps were everywhere in news coverage.

Journalist used maps showing radar images, forecasted tracks of the storm, wind speeds by town or county, and more to cover the hurricane. In most instances, the reporting demonstrated how maps can be an effective tool for reporters.

When Sandy hit, the Boston Globe featured a map of storm reports. It was effective in several ways and is emblematic of some of the benefits maps offer to journalists.

The Globe used red dots to mark spots on a map of Massachusetts where there were storm reports, and these red dots linked to tweets or stories. This graphic, like many other maps, was helpful spatially because a reader could clearly see where the storm was hitting hardest based on the concentration of red dots.

Interactivity was another feature of the storm report map. Readers could click on the dots, use links to stories or tweets on different webpages, or move around and zoom in on different areas of the map. They could truly engage with the graphic, staying on the webpage for several minutes to examine different aspects of it. The map afforded an active experience.

Such reader engagement is taken even further in a map on boston.com marking potholes in Boston. Readers can use this map not only to track existing potholes, but to mark new potholes they have discovered. It’s a good example of a news organization trying to connect with its readers online, and it shows how an interactive map is a simple way to do this.

Reading the news online can be a passive experience.  A reader uses a mouse or trackpad to navigate a page and click on subjects, but overall it’s a rather hands-off experience compared to picking up a newspaper. You can’t touch the paper to turn the page, and there’s no real contact.

An online map, however, can provide some sense of tangibility. It’s still just an image on a computer screen, but the ability to scan and zoom in on the map provides some feeling that the reader can actually handle the graphic.

The two previously mentioned maps are effective for their relative simplicity. Some maps, however, include too many features. If a reporter is looking to mark dozens of points on a map in a small area, it can be overwhelming and difficult to use. There’s a point of diminishing return, when the amount of information a journalist wants to convey is simply too much to be shown on a map.

The Globe’s storm reports map for Hurricane Sandy was largely a complement to other news coverage, too. It often linked to stories or brief write-ups that existed outside the map from Globe reporters.

But a map can also be journalism on its own. The Washington Post demonstrates this well with its 2012 Election Map. It shows in simple, color-coded fashion how many electoral votes a candidate needs to win the presidential election and how citizens are expected to vote based on the latest projections.

Looking at this map and nothing else, a reader can learn a lot about the presidential election and how it is expected to turn out. It’s proof that maps, in their various forms, can better journalism either as a complement to coverage or  an independent storytelling form.

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