Examining Iraq Infographics

There is tremendous potential for news sites to use online infographics to enhance the presentation of information. How are some of the major news organizations creating infographics online? In a report for, Nora Paul, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for New Media Studies, compares how news organizations were explaining the B-52 Bomber.

By Nora Paul
News organizations are taking advantage of the unique attributes of the digital story space in their coverage of the Iraqi war. Constantly and instantly updated information, compelling audio slide shows, text stories complemented with audio and video segments are all being made available online. These techniques are vividly bringing the stories from the front home. But how well are they using digital design capabilities to explain some of the hard facts of the war? There is tremendous potential for online infographics to enhance the presentation of information. How are some of the major news organizations creating infographics online? I decided to compare how news organizations were explaining the B-52 Bomber.
The Associated Press has a package of eleven animated infographics on different weapons and warcraft. The B-52 segment starts with a silhouette view of the plane taking off. The next slide provides a comparison with other planes and the length of runway required for takeoff. Subsequent graphics show the plane flying and dropping bombs (each slide showing in silhouette the number of bombs of different weights it is capable of carrying). Other slides show how mid-air refueling takes place. Each of the slides has a text box at the top providing more information than what is on the labels of the graphic. The animation is simple and clean and the package provides a great deal of information.
USA Today?s B-52 infographic starts off by zooming in on the plane from different perspectives, complete with sound effects. The images move to the top of the screen to serve as the index to the package: armament, specs, inventory, photos. Clicking on one of the four topics provides an animation of the plane with labels detailing relevant information. The photos section has a slide show with nine photos with sidebar information about the B-52?s role in history.
El Mundo also has an array of animated infographics in its ?Guerra en Irak? package. Their B-52 Stratofortress infographic is pretty straightforward. Each of the slides includes an animation of the plane labeled with the relevant information. El Mundo uses the Flash animation to do cutaways of certain parts of the plane, identifying a section of the plane and pulling it out to the side with additional labeled information given. They have a consistently clean and effective strategy for providing infographics online. One of their infographics on Iraqi missiles has a map of Iraq on which you can move missile locations around and the range the missile would have is displayed in pulsating lines. This is a very effective way of better understanding the presumed threat of Iraqi weapon capabilities to neighboring countries.
MSNBC?s ?Tools of War? section uses tabs indicating seven topics for which the site has created graphics: Bases, New Weapons, Air, Sea, Land/Air Cav, Munitions, Iraq. The ?Air? section has 21 entries ?- clicking on one displays a static photograph and text information about the airplane. If you want the quick facts on any of the weapons of warfare, this display works well.
The New York Times B-52 graphic has a static structural drawing of the whole plane on the index page. Selecting from one of the areas of the plane listed to the left — The Nose, Left Wing, Right Wing, Tail, Munitions -? causes the diagram to zoom to that area for a closer look and the display of some additional information.

The BBC?s Military Fact File section
is very nicely organized. People looking for encyclopedic type information about Firepower, Land, Sea, Air, Chemical Weapons, or Troops will find it easy to locate the specific information they are looking for. The B-52 page, like the others, is a narrative about the plane, a stats box at the bottom and drawings of the plane from different angles at the top.

CNN?s Weapons section
has a simple, minimal index card type entry for each type of munitions, ground weapon, aircraft, warship and weapon of mass destruction. Supplementing this fairly sparse info file for some of the weapons is a visually rich 3D model. The 3D model can be turned and flipped to reveal different parts, and there are animations available — in the case of the B-52 you can see the flaps extend, open the bomb bay and see the refueling procedure.
The question is what do the different animation styles do to enhance people?s understanding of what they are looking at? The effort to create compelling animations is considerable. We need to understand better what effect different presentation styles have so that the effort can be justified (and encouraged!)

Nora Paul is the Director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota.

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