The media’s coverage of the MH370 story could benefit from more journalists and fewer infographic designers.
The search for Malaysia Airlines MH370 continues. Malaysian authorities have now decreed, on the basis of evidence derived from an innovative new data analysis procedure, that the flight ended in the southern portion of the Indian Ocean.
I’m looking at the latest reporting and I’m not going to lie. If I was intrigued before, I’m now downright baffled. We know – or at least we think we know – that the flight veered off course in a manner that certainly indicated active human decision making and control. We know it was headed not northward toward China, as scheduled, but westish, in the general direction of India.
But my perplexity over the facts, such as they are, is only being compounded by the ineptitude of the journalism being devoted to the story.
Take this morning. I was looking over the coverage and map/infographic in the latest National Post story. Ideally, infographics are supposed to make things clearer, but in this case… Well, have a look.
First check out the top section of this map, which shows the track that has become familiar enough to those following the story. Then have a look at the bottom, where they mark the spot that the flight hit the water.
The design staff at the National Post is taking a pretty cavalier approach to geography. (We’ve warned you before about infographics, if you’ll recall.) This one does what modern infographery all too often does – it adjusts the objective truth of things in order to make best use of the available space. As in, you have x number of pixels by y number of pixels – make the world fit cleanly. This makes for a pleasant viewing experience, perhaps, but I’m not sure how well the reader’s sense of what actually happened is served.
To illustrate the point I hit Google Maps and plotted out the relevant points of the MH370 case I’ll let you compare and contrast and draw your own conclusions.
1: Kuala Lumpur, the flight’s point of origin.
2: The point where things went sideways.
3: The location of the last ping.
4: The spot where they say the flight ended – 1500 miles southwest of Perth.
Notice anything odd? As in, how far does Perth look to be from Indonesia on the infographic vs. how far it is on the actual map? Scale? Fuck scale. We only have x pixels, so let’s scooch Malaysia over here a little and move Australia a few hundred miles to the north. Yeah, there we go!
I’d love to see the National Post infographic group’s map of the world. You know, the one where Ecuador is 20 miles south of Omaha.
This works fine, I suppose, in a world where everyone is pretty good with geography and can be counted on to instantly get what’s happening. It’s also no big deal in situations where it’s no big deal. That isn’t the case here, and it even took me a few seconds – because I was trying to parse the fact that the plane wound up making another left turn, apparently – because I stopped and said wait a second – this isn’t right.
Here the infographic actively warps the story. Why? Because if we’re attempting to understand what may have happened to MH370, the infographic fails to accurately convey the scope of the flight. You can look at it and have some questions. But when you look at the actual map, the scale of your questions can’t help but change. A few hundred miles and a few thousand miles – those are potentially different sets of questions, aren’t they?
Thinking Americans have long since given up on journalism, I suppose. I don’t expect stories to be covered in depth. I don’t expect much in the way of insight. Objectivity has devolved from myth into cruel joke. And if someone is bright enough to grasp technical issues, they’re probably also bright enough to land a job that pays better than the scraps your average reporter has to live on these days.
But dammit, is it asking too much for your infographics department (yes, there are people whose jobs are dedicated specifically to developing infographics, because readers like how they can quickly “communicate a story”) that they not actively mislead us? I mean, I expect this kind of silliness out of US outlets, but National Post is Canadian. You’d think they’d be embarrassed to behave like Americans.
I hope investigators find the wreckage. I hope they find the black box. I hope they find an explanation. But I’m not sure I’m optimistic. Right now it feels like the Question-to-Answer ratio is 1:1,000,000. And even if we do get something like a conclusive answer, I’m going to have Sean Paul Kelley’s observation on the trustworthiness of the sources lodged firmly in the front of my mind.
But at the moment, I’d be satisfied if the media outlets covering the story employed more journalists and fewer infographic designers.