The Times chose December 20, 2006 because, according to the data, it was one of the deadliest days of the conflict in Baghdad: “There were 114 separate episodes of violence that day, resulting in the deaths of about 160 Iraqi citizens and police officers.” Assistant editor of interactive news Jacob Harris said that Sabrina Tavernise, a Times national correspondent who worked on the project, had the idea to focus on a single day, “to provide a window into the horrific levels of violence without distancing the reader from the daily impact the way a yearly map does.”
Tavernise wrote in an e-mail that, even after narrowing it down, “digesting the data was fiendishly complicated.” She and Harris worked together on this part: each entry for that one day had to be hand counted and sorted by factors like grid coordinates, type of casualty, nationality of victim, and cause of death.
Especially important, of course, was comparing all of the reports to each other to make sure there were no duplicates. At first, said Harris, they had originally settled on a different day that month, which had appeared to be the most deadly. But then they found that the discovery of twenty-eight corpses had been recorded three different times, by three different military units. So where they had initially thought there were eighty-four deaths, there were actually twenty-eight.
This kind of duplication is common throughout the WikiLeaks reports, which is why Harris says they are careful to caution their readers about taking any hard numbers away from the story. While they could take the time to vet and tally a single day in December 2006, with its 114 separate violent events, they didn’t have the manpower to repeat that process for all 400,000 documents. (For an organization that’s working on doing just that, check out Iraq Body Count.) So while the Times team felt comfortable using the raw numbers to create the yearly-map snaphots, they deliberately did not post any hard numbers alongside those graphics on the site.
“We use the data to report on reality,” said Harris. “We don’t necessarily want to just report on what the data says.” In this instance, the data merely gave them an idea of the general pattern of violence in Baghdad across time, from 2004 to 2009. “It is powerful to see how the violence just swells like this,” he said. “But of course we have to be wary of where the data has potential issues.”
The Guardian data team chose October 17, 2006 for their “day in the life” of the Iraq war because it was “a typical day in one of the bloodiest years of the Iraq conflict - 136 dead Iraqis, 10 dead Americans and hundreds of violent incidents.” Guardian correspondent James Meek compiled and verified the entries from that day, and then guided readers through the logs from that day in an accompanying article. Then he and graphics designers Alastair Dant and Mariana Santos put together the Flash-animation map. Santos, a freelancer hired for the project, has experience with video documentaries as well as with Flash animation, which may have influenced the style of the presentation, said Rogers.
The effect of the map timeline is anything but “sanitized.” Like the IED timeline map that The Guardian made for the Afghanistan war logs, the emotional impact for the viewer builds up over time, as the casualties accumulate on the map. This time, though, it’s just one day, and the pace of the scrolling text of the incident summaries encourages (enforces, actually) a slow read. The timeline begins at midnight, when the text rolling across the screen reads:
There is already fighting when midnight comes around. Insurgents have rocketed a US infantry base south of Baghdad and set fire to oxygen tanks. The Americans fire back and a civilian is wounded by shrapnel in the chest.
The summaries continue throughout the next twenty-four hours, each in the same simple, readable language. The map slowly fills up with colored dots, different colors for different incidents: American death; Iraqi death; arrest; kidnap; bombs or grenades; explosions; firefights; shootings. A red numeral to the right of the map keeps a tally of the deaths that day, as the text keeps rolling. In a particularly subtle touch, the background of the map changes from dark gray, to light gray, to white, to gray again, mimicking the visibility at each time of day and night.
The Times’s map is much more static and simple than The Guardian’s. This might be because the Times team is currently quite distracted by the midterm elections next week, something that Harris and Quealy acknowledged. “We’re running on incredible deadlines all the time, so we try to best present the information with the amount of time we have,” said Quealy.