Data journalism and information visualization is a burgeoning field. Every week, Between the Spreadsheets will analyze, interrogate, and explore emerging work in this area. Between the Spreadsheets is brought to you by CJR and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
On the first anniversary of the launch of the Guardian’s US offshoot, the site scooped up the Online News Association’s award for best explanatory reporting by a large news site for an interactive piece about gay rights in the US. The award was announced at ONA’s annual conference last week. It’s with this prize-winning piece that the Guardian, a newcomer to US media, shows the power of interactives to creatively and simply explain a complex news item.
Gabriel Dance, interactive editor, said the idea to create a piece about gay rights was born out of the Guardian US’s strategy to make interactives that have a longer lifespan than the 24-hour news cycle. Gay rights, gun control, and the upcoming election are all topics to which the interactive team allots time and resources, because they feel these to be issues that will recur throughout the news cycle. “We don’t have beats, we have obsessions,” Dance said. Gay rights is one of these obsessions; it’s an issue the site feels needs an in-depth level of coverage that also has a long shelf life.
A map is probably the first idea to spring to mind when conceptualizing a piece about state-by-state gay rights. But Feilding Cage, the graphic designer on the project, said he didn’t use a map, because it would have put too much emphasis on only one slice of the data. Instead, the information is displayed as a color wheel. The wheel is divided into five regional segments which are then subdivided into states. The wheel is made up of seven concentric circles, each representing a different right: marriage, hospital visits, adoption, employment, housing, hate crimes, and schools. If something is legal in a given state, it is given a brighter segment; by contrast, a grayed segment means the the right has been denied. The southeast segment of the color wheel is almost entirely white:
Just as adjectives can be charged with double meanings, so can information displays. The bright color palette, echoing the rainbows of the gay pride flag, gives a nod to the Guardian’s position on gay rights; Dance said the Guardian supports gay rights, an issue of great importance to the liberal newspaper. Cage said the color choice wasn’t intentional, but rather an aesthetic decision that made reading the interactive easier. But in a sense, this piece is as editorial as it is explanatory. Although imbuing interactive content with editorial slants isn’t always appropriate, for a media company that comes from a tradition of outspoken political and social stances, this fits.
Gay rights doesn’t just mean gay marriage; there are a host of other issues in play. The reason the wheel was broken down into the seven subcategories is to show just how many rights are at stake for homosexuals. When Cage was sketching out design ideas for the project, he was conscious of finding a design that encapsulated and conveyed the whole picture. “I wanted a holistic view,” Cage said.
Dance agreed. “We saw this as an opportunity to expand the conversation,” he said.
The piece also features a social element, which serves as the main way to expand that conversation. A Facebook link-up allows users to log in through their Facebook accounts and see the rights of the states in which their friends live. This functionality contextualizes and personalizes what may otherwise be a huge, more amorphous, national story.
The Facebook app connects the piece into the reader’s social network. Because Facebook friends are curated via mutually accepted friend requests, these networks carry a degree of emotional weight. It’s more powerful to connect to this interactive through your Facebook account than it is to type in random ZIP codes. This way, you can immediately see that, say, 50 of your friends live in a state that doesn’t include sexual orientation in its hate crime laws.
Winning the ONA’s Online Journalism Award was “very rewarding and encouraging,” Dance said. It not only created a buzz of excitement in the US office, but the team also took it as confirmation that readers are engaging with the same issues that the site feels strongly about and chooses to put at the heart of its news agenda.
Full disclosure: Anna Codrea-Rado is a former employee of Guardian News & Media.Anna Codrea-Rado is a digital media associate at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @annacod. Tags: Guardian US, ONA, Online News Association