An academic study into the use of GIS in Journalism

This blog post explores; background to the study; spatial analysis; the important of spatial analysis to the journalist; what a geographic information system (GIS) is; the emergence of GIS in journalism; the emergence of data journalism; proprietary and open source GIS; the threat of web mapping services to GIS; other GIS issues; proprietary and open source data; other data issues; people. A research question was then generated from the literature review. 

Background to the study 

When David Herzog published his seminal work: ‘Mapping the News – Case Studies in GIS and Journalism’ (2003), he comprehensively explored the relatively new concept of using this software in the field of news reporting.

mapping the news
Mapping the News: Case Studies in GIS and Journalism
By David Herzog

He noted the landmark year which saw GIS arrive on the journalism scene was 1992 when the Miami Herald used GIS to uncover previously unnoticed damage trends caused by Hurricane Andrew (2003, preface) which became national news and which won the reporter Steve Doig the Pulitzer Prize.

In this case it was shown that where poor building regulations and incompetent inspections occurred so did homes being decimated as oppose to those nearer the epicentre which had been better maintained. This in turn led to political fallout and high profile resignations.

Herzog comments that in recent years more and more journalists are adding the usage of GIS to their journalistic skill sets “and can now dig deeper into data and visualise otherwise unnoticed geographic patterns.” (2003, preface)

He adds that when asking the classical reporting questions; who, where, why, when and how, GIS can be implemented to establish where exactly events are taking place. (2003, p.1)

Herzog further adds: “Other professions have used GIS for much longer, but journalists are just starting to catch up … GIS is just getting a foothold.” (2003, p.1)

It is the aim of the dissertation to explore whether in 2013 Herzog’s hope for the integration of GIS into journalism has materialised in the following decade and if not the reasons behind this.

Spatial analysis

Simply put a GIS is a modern form of spatial analysis using modern information technology. Spatial analysis means the study and relationship of entities based on their topological or geospatial locations.

Spatial analysis is not a new concept and in some form has been around since the early days of the emergence of cartography, which is the science and art of making maps and which has been around for thousands of years.

Possibly the most earliest recognised and most celebrated case of using spatial analysis was in 1894 when in London, then under the grip of a cholera epidemic, a physician by the name of John Snow decided to investigate the cause (the germ theory of disease had yet to be developed).

In a paper published on the ‘’, website Herzog describes how:

“Snow who was a sceptic of that theory, sketched a map of his Soho neighbourhood streets, water pumps and cholera deaths. When he finished, he saw a large clump of dots – each representing one person killed by cholera – near the Broad Street public water pump. Snow’s celebrated map helped confirm that contaminated water in that pump had killed many Londoners who drank from it.” <Herzog. 2012, np>

This was the first recognised incident of using spatial analysis to investigate the reasons behind an issue.  As information technology improved investigators become conduct their own spatial analysis to greater degree of sophistication in order to uncover trends and to investigate the reasons behind them.

The importance of spatial analysis to the journalist

 An oft spoken principle in geography circles is that 80% of all data can be spatially referenced. (Huxhold. 1991, p.23)

The first rule of geography, also known as ‘Tobler’s law’, after the great American Swiss cartographer and geographer Waldo Tobler, is that: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related to each other.” (Tobler. 1970, p.236)

Knowing these principles the journalist can start to investigate why certain patterns happen in certain areas as there must be some outside factor  influencing instances in a similar geographic area to some lesser or greater level of degree.

By knowing where patterns occur, the journalist can answer the other journalism questions; who, what, when, how, and including, perhaps most importantly, Why?

What is a GIS?

The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the pioneering and most well-known GIS company in the world defines GIS as:

“A geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analysing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information.” <ESRI 2013, np>

According to Longley et al (2011):

“GIS is concerned with the description, explanation and prediction of patterns at geographic scales (2011, p.vii) … almost all human activities and decisions involve a geographical component.” (2011, p.11)

The tangible outcome of any spatial analysis is a map which can come in many forms of varying degrees of complicity.

The Oxford English Dictionary (Soanes et al, 2011) defines a map as:

“A representation, usually on a flat surface, of selected features of all or a part of the earth or a portion of the heavens, shown in their respective relationships according to some convention of representation.”

Slocum, T. et al (2010, p.2) identifies two general types of map:

“The first is the generalized reference map and the second is the thematic map. In the former the maps objective is to simply portray the geographical locations of objects. In the former “thematic mapping is used to emphasise the spatial pattern of one or more geographical attributes such as population density, family income and temperature maximums.”

While GIS can produce both types of mapping it is primarily best suited for the production of thematic mapping such as the choropleth map (where different geographic areas are represented by different shades to represent different attributable values).

Dorling and Fairbairne (1977, p.122) stated that:

“GIS can help in the development of an electronic democracy …the citizen should be able easily to access the information and when it is geographically disaggregated they will find the information engaging because it relates to where they live.”

Dorling and Fairbairne also draw interesting comparisons between the emergence of GIS and the invention of the printing press back in the 1400’s. Much like the printing press led to an explosion in the amount of books in the world, “GIS has resulted in more maps being drawn in the last decade than were created in all previous history.”(1997, p.125) They add that more importantly a wider range of people are now creating these maps.

GIS predate Herzog’s book by around forty years. It was initially bourn from an initiative by the Canadian government to manage forestry and other types of land use. (Dorling et al. 1997, p.124)

Since then GIS has been used in other industries for a lot longer and lot more enthusiastically than it has been in the news room to uncover trends. It has been widely used in a multitude of different sectors such as marketing, health, education, logistics, transportation, geo-demographics (such as supermarkets assessing performance and deciding where best to site new shops), forestry and conservation projects and for policing to identify crime hotspots (Longley et al. 2011, p.4)

Other examples which are by no means exhaustive can include election results, environmental hazards, disaster and emergency response planning, demographic changes, and census analysis. (Herzog. 2003, p5).

The emergence of GIS in journalism

Journalism was slow to catch on. In the 1970’s when other industries were beginning to recognize the benefits of GIS it was virtually unheard of in the newsroom. In 1992 GIS was just beginning to be adopted by pioneering journalists. Although its usage was critical in uncovering the story which led to Steve Doig receiving his Pulitzer Prize, it still remained the remit of tech-savvy journalists.

Now pioneers understand that by inputting this data onto a map using GIS can aid the journalist in two ways as outlined by the Journalism and GIS Interest Group in its Ad hoc Committee on GIS and Journalism. <1999, np>:

“(1) Mapping data points, or thematically mapping data, is much like putting together a scatterplot. It is a way for the journalist to visualize the data. The map might never go into the newspaper. However, the journalist can quickly spot trends or interesting pockets in the data that call out for more reporting.”

“(2) Mapping is a way of integrating all of your reporting. A map in the newspaper, surrounded by data, probably is a lot more palatable to the reader than endless tables. And, the map helps the reader visualize the data.”

Herzog (2003, p.4) feels that GIS;

“Allows journalists on the beat or working on exhaustive investigations to take mapping to a higher level. They can map governmental data or tables of data they create themselves, and look for patterns; they can find geographic elements that are near each other. For example a journalist can use GIS to identify schools that are close to environmental hazards.”

The promotion of GIS by pioneers like Herzog and Doig and training journalism think-tank’s such as National Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) who provide; “hands-on training using the latest version of ArcView GIS” <IRE 2013>, have meant that; “we have continued to witness the convergence of GIS and media during the past 10 years.” (Sui, Daniel & Goodchild, Michael, 2011, p.1739).

The emergence of data journalism 

Even when Hertzog (2003) demonstrated its usefulness to the journalistic world the industry was still slow to catch on especially in the UK. However the main factor to have emerged which led to GIS being more and more recognised as a viable form of sourcing and visualising a story was the emergence of data journalism and the increased availability of information in the form of digital data.

This culminated in two very high profile cases at the end of the 2000’s, namely the MP’s Expenditure Scandal here in the UK and the WikiLeaks publication of US confidential military information from Iraq both of which shook the respective establishments to the core. (Rodgers. 2012, Kindle: location 31-40)

This has led to journalists such as Simon Rodgers a leading global authority on data-Journalism to claim that: “In the past two years, data journalism has become our industry standard, our way of telling the big stories.” (2012, Kindle: location 31-40)

The leading publication on data journalism is now the online ‘The Data Journalism Handbook 2011’ <Gray et al, 2011 np>:

It was born at a 48 hour workshop at MozFest 2011 in London. It subsequently spilled over into an international, collaborative effort involving dozens of data journalism’s leading advocates and best practitioners.

It focusses on the new possibilities;

“… when you combine the traditional “nose for news” and ability to tell a compelling story with the sheer scale and range of digital information now available.  By being able to ‘gather, filter and visualize data’ the journalist   transforms something abstract  into something everyone can understand and relate to.” <2011, np>

Claire Miller (2013, p.102) believes that data journalism is not about;

“… carrying out research into the data that will lead to definitive answers about cause and effect. What they tend to do is look for patterns, the outliers and the connections between data in order to ask questions about what a dataset might be telling.”

How you get answers to these questions will most probably come down to using traditional forms of reporting such as knocking doors and making telephone calls.

Proprietary and open source GIS

Many authors such as Harvey and Pavlovskaya (2005, 40, no. 4:1-4.) claim that because of the;

“… cost and complexity of GIS software it prevents access by the full range of the population and consequently that GIS was largely under the control of those in positions of political and economic power.”

In reply to this, Crampton (2010, p.40) observed:

In the last few years cartography has been slipping from the control of the powerful elite that has exercised dominance over it for several hundred years.

“This has mainly through open source GIS that has made mapping software more readily available and easier for the public to use in order to create acceptable maps (Langley et al. 2012, p.36).”

The Open Source Movement  <2013, np> encompasses developers who; “embrace and celebrate open exchange … The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in” of software. There is several open source GIS software available for free such as QuantumGIS (QGIS) and GRASS available online that are capable of performing a high level spatial analysis.

However for the higher end software such as ArcMap, capable of better analysis the software does remain expensive.

The threat of web mapping services (WMS) to GIS 

The rise of web mapping services have had a detrimental effect on the uptake of GIS by journalists as they offer a more readily available, simpler and more interactive alternative to GIS.

If a person can remember a time they have used a web page such as Google Maps or AA Route Finder then they will be able to envisage a WMS.

The two leading UK data journalists Simon Rodgers <The Guardian Data Blog. 2012, np> and Claire Miller (2013, pp.374-311) when promoting mapping software for journalistic purposes favour Google Maps, Tableau, and Open Heat Map: all WMS and this is evident in the maps they produce.

There is a growing acceptance in recent years, that due to the advances in WMS and the analysis that they can carry out that though they may not be a whole GIS they are at least a partial GIS. <Avraam,M.2009, np>

The issue is summed up by Shane Gorman on the Esri DC Development Center blog titled is ‘Is Google Maps GIS?’ <2008, np>:

“The truth is likely somewhere between the two, but I think the more important point is that the gap between the two is shrinking at an incredibly rapid pace. I’d predict in the next few years there will be little that differentiates the GeoWeb from GIS other than the names identified with their past like ESRI, Google, Microsoft, MapInfo etc.”

However at this point in time they still lack the most important part of a true GIS, the ability to conduct in-depth spatial analysis and so will be treated as not a GIS for this dissertation. 

Other GIS Issues 

Mapping involves scaling of objects relative to their position on the ground. This process known as generalisation and has it own inherent problems says Monmonier, (1996, p.25):

“The value of the map depends on how well it’s generalised geometrically and generalised content reflect a chosen aspect of reality.”

Also by objectively classifying values in the data the GIS user can manufacture a desired outcome:

“A single set of numerical data can yield markedly dissimilar maps. By manipulating breaks between categories of a choropleth map, a map maker can often create two distinctly different spatial patterns.” (1996, p.39),

Longley, et al (2011, p.34) claim; “that the way in which GIS represents the Earth’s surface particularly human society, favours certain people, phenomena and perspectives”, especially in relation to minority views; “which differ from the official or consensus view.

Paslawski (1984, no. 1:36-37) has a similar stance: “Like maps themselves GIS is a powerful means for visual persuasions and its geographical imagination can create and reveal alternative worlds.”

Longley et al play devil’s advocate. On the one hand they state that “GIS is a proven technology”, which; “provides secure statistically sound foundations for … analysis of the real world” and that GIS based analysis; “is robust and defensible.” (2011, p.vii)

On the very same page they also state “we can never be confident about the results we can obtain from GIS projects.”

Pang et al draws us to the principle of map uncertainty which is an on-going issue in GIS circles which states that common errors can arise in three ways ; inaccurate “raw data on which the map is based, the manner in which the data is processed and the manner in which the visualisation is created.” (1997, p.18)

Some also argue that the idea of Geo-Surveillance is sneaking up on us. Longley et al (2011, p.134) wonder if there is an ethical question in that journalists could invade privacy of individuals by being able to identify them through their geographical location and that GIS has become “a tool of the surveillance society.”

Proprietary and open source data 

Open source data and the increasing willingness of governmental agencies to release official data have improved availability of digital data.

Prior to this, as with software, Harvey and Pavlovskaya (2005, 40, no. 4, pp. 1- 4.) believed that geographic data was held tightly by those “in positions of political and economic power.”

This geographic data is expensive and time consuming to make which meant previously stayed firmly in the hands of its creators or sold at a very high price (Government agencies and specialised commercial organisations).

Longley et al (2011, p.26) observe that  commercially the market for GIS data is now greater than the GIS software market which stands at $1billion annually which may restrict a lot of data from the general masses.

But this has been countered both by the open source movement and the increase in the willingness of governmental agencies to release official data. This has facilitated the availability of free and commercial sources of geographic data online.

As Longley et al (2011, p.26) observe, “there are an indefinite number of sites out there by which to get GIS data, many of which are free.”

Other Data Issues

Philip Meyer (2002, p1) notes “The world has become so complicated, the growth of available information so explosive, that the journalist needs to be a filter, as well as a transmitter, an organiser and interpreter, as well as one who gathers and delivers facts.”

Heather Brooke (2011, p.69), questions the availability and validity of data and notes that “Government statistics make up four – fifths of all official statistics.”

If we are to use this data for reporting then we must ensure that it is free of;

“…such tactics as statistical manipulation used by the powerful to spin or slant information so that we are able to judge the effectiveness of a policy or decision.” (2011, p.5)”

In order to counter these allegations the UK Government has published a Code of Practice for Statistics. <2009, np>

These standards are:

  1. Meeting users’ needs
  2. Impartiality and objectivity
  3. Integrity
  4. Sound Methods and assured quality
  5. Confidentiality
  6. Resources (Sufficient to provide data)
  7. Proportionate burden (Does benefit outweigh cost?)
  8. Frankness and Accessibility

If these 8 categories can be assured then most if not all of the issues surrounding the release of official data should be minimised.


If journalists want to be able to take advantage of this software then they must have the right attitudes and training.

The Data Journalism Handbook (Gray et al. 2012) realises this and notes how:

There is a barrier keeping journalists from using this data potential and training themselves to work with data through all the steps – from its first question to a big data driven scoop.

It does acknowledge that in a recent European Journalism Centre survey that there is “a big willingness to get out of the comfort zone of traditional journalism and to invest time in mastering new skills.” There is a recognition that it data journalism and GIS offers a huge opportunity but that also journalists” need initial support” in order to grab it. (Gray et al. 2012).

The references and bibliography can be found here.

This work above has been submitted to the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in International Journalism 2013. (Forms basis of my Literature Review which has been slightly adapted for this blog post)

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