Online journalism gives journalists and news consumers an unprecedented opportunity to see the news develop in ways far beyond static text or video. While much of digital journalism is yet to be discovered, one extremely valuable capability it has is the use of maps to give context to stories.
There are many ways of doing this. I will explore three.
First, The Guardian offers what I think is the best single presentation of WikiLeaks’ massive dump of diplomatic cables. Users can explore a world map and read cables based on the location of origin or locations mentioned in the cable (i.e. American and French diplomats discussing Iran). This can help users find cables, say, about middle eastern countries or those between Russia and the United States, a view into how the fragile relationship is maintained.
Another great use of mapping (with nothing to do with WikiLeaks) is a boston.com feature about the war in Afghanistan, The Long War. The map is marked with interactive numbers, marking a reporter’s progression through the region. As users click on the numbers, multimedia presentations emerge and allow the reader to see what was happening in that location. The map does a great job of providing context to the stories that are coming out of the region as well as helping them to understand the situation that American troops are in.
Finally, a map with disappointing execution but amazing potential is the USGS map of earthquakes near Japan. The site allows users to see squares on a map, their size denoting their magnitude) where earthquakes have occurred and when. The map illustrates a fact that I certainly didn’t know and I feel many people have failed to see: there have been 482 earthquakes near Japan in that last seven days (users can click on the squares to get detailed information about the earthquake). Obviously most didn’t even come close to the power of the one that devastated northeast Japan, killing into the tens of thousands (along with the tsunami that followed it), but the map paints a picture. Instead of an isolated incident, the earthquake was part of a massive amount of seismic activity. I would really love to see a major news organization pick this information up and make a better-designed map with all of the information available. Better execution could make this into a wonderful presentation.