Using Maps to tell a news story

“Maps are like campfires – everyone gathers around them, because they allow people to understand complex issues at a glance”

– Sonoma Ecology Centre

The books of Terry Pratchitt’s comic fantasy series Discworld are among the most loved works in literature by children and adults alike.

Events are set on the fictional Discworld, a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle.

Set in this vast fantasy world which contains many weird and wonderful places Pratchett realised that his readers would find it difficult to follow events unless he provided a map inserted into the book, a map in which readers could look at in order to quickly dissimulate  were exactly events were taking place  and then to return to the narrative.

Pratchett’s map of Discworld included in his books.
Source: Pratchett, Discworld.

This was not a new concept.

Any decent edition of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy also includes maps covering Frodo and his fellow traveller’s epic journey through Middle Earth.

More recently the practice was followed by George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series that spurned the very successful Game of Thrones TV series.  

These great story tellers all realised the importance of how maps could help them in their story telling, to help readers understand complex events in a world unfamiliar to them.

Though journalists deal with facts and not fantasy (most of the time!) the principle applies equally to them when they wish to relay their stories.

Maps provide a sense of topography to news to readers, an instant appreciation of where things are happening in relation to the them and whether it concerns them geographically.

The 1999 Ad Hoc Committee on the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Journalism said;

“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.”

In days of yesteryear journalists had three options when they wanted to accompany a story with a map. Draw it themselves on a piece of paper, use graphic artists or employ specialist cartographers.

What one would save on cost and time by drawing the map themselves would lose on the visual aesthetics and credibility of the map that could be created by experts and vice versa.

Nowadays journalists are much more fortunate. Mapping software which enables them to create visually appealing and credible maps to accompany their story telling have emerged in the form of GIS like ArcMap, Web Mapping Services (WMS) such as Google Maps and HTML and Flash based map programming suites such as J3 Query.

All if used correctly give the investigative journalist impressive ways of conveying the findings of their investigations in an easily digestible format.

So let’s look at the mapping software out there.

The first mapping software that came on the scene was GIS when in 1992,  journalist and current leading academic in computer assisted reporting (CAR); Professor Steve Doig used it to investigate damage patterns and the reasons behind them of Hurricane Andrew for the Miami Herald.

Professor David Herzog, the world’s foremost authority of the use of GIS in journalism stresses the importance of using GIS to create good visualisations:

“I think that data visualisation is very important for data journalists who are using GIS to be able to create maps that are visually appealing to tell stories that are engaging that people want to spend some time with.”

Natural Disasters Risk Maps
An example of the New York Times use of GIS to visualise the storms that battered south-west USA in 2011 Source: New York Times (click on image)

Although GIS can produce some great visualisations its greatest use to the investigative journalist is in uncovering geographic patterns in data that call out for further investigation.

Megan Luther, Training Director at the Investigators, Reporters and Editors Inc. (IRE), the leading journalism training provider in the US, has noted:

“I think the GIS software advanced options are used more I believe by journalists as a reporting tool more than a visualisation tool for the audience aimed as towards the audience. Journalist use the advanced GIS is to see what is the story is for reporting news rather than visualisation.”

Historically it is a complicated and expensive piece of software to adopt though today there are free GIS software such as QGIS, Grass or online GIS software, all with free online tutorials.

GIS is the tool to use if wanting to create an impressive static visualisation as it is the professional cartographer’s tool of choice.

David Donald works at the highly distinguished Centre for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington and has many years of experience as a CAR and data journalist as well as writing and teaching extensively in these areas.

He believes there; “is a demand for data visualizations, the visualization of data is really up and coming and GIS is seen as a crucial part of data visualization, not the only part, but crucial part.”

Web mapping services (WMS) such as Google maps can also be an important resource in mapping the news.

WMS allow those who uncover trends using GIS to import their findings into these services so the investigative journalist can take advantage of the more complex spatial analysis capabilities of GIS and integrate them into the more internet friendly WMS.

Also in comparision to GIS these WMS are free, simpler to use and more readily accessible and  also provide an interactive element to capture and maintain readers interest.

Most investigative journalists are familiar with WMS such as Google Maps, Open Street Mapping and Tableau are these are now probably the tool of choice for the everyday journalist.

As more and people are going online for news it is only reasonable for journalists to take advantage of WMS and the interactive qualities they offer.

David Donald believes; “the use of Google Mapping and Fusion Tables has been a big as impact as anything in journalism. I think when Google mapping came out it brought a lot of people in so I think it’s had a big impact and as reporters we now have to think of online as the main publishing tool, it’s not static paper and things, the news industry has changed. I think that it’s become more natural because their websites are more interactive and why not include mapping as well.” 7

Jennifer LaFleur, currently ProPublica’s (‘an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest’) Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting (CAR) and previously the Investigative Reporters and Editor’s (IRE) first Training Director, she says:

To journalists [WMS] are really important. Back when I was doing my journalism stuff there was no way to really allow a reader to explore that information when they were putting the static map into the paper and now if you are living in one of those areas you can zoom in and explore it and get a lot more information. We can now use better tools for readers.”

The most recognisable online mapping system is Google Maps. Kathryn Tourney is an award winning investigative journalist for Belfast based news organisation The Detail.

Kathryn uses WMS like Google Maps extensively in her reporting to aid her story telling.

She was named as the Royal Statistical Society’s 2013 online winner in its Statistical Excellence in Journalism awards for her investigative piece on segregation in Northern Ireland’s schools:

“The judges said they were particularly impressed by Kathryn’s use of Google Maps and felt her article’s key strength was in enabling the reader to get beyond a conventionally presented story to find out relevant local data.” (The Detail)

Kathryn Tourney’s award winning visualisation
Source: The Detail (click on image)

Kathryn uses Batch Geo which uses the Google Maps interface in her investigative reporting for three reasons; firstly its story telling function:

“I wanted to be able to map the religious make up of our schools on a per school basis as well as report on the key overall themes.”

“For our storytelling of data projects I like to layer our coverage where possible – the main news article containing our headline findings, detailed charts and graphs and then right down to local figures relevant to people’s own areas”.

Award winning journalist Kathryn Tourney
Source: The Detail

Secondly its simplicity: “I have found so far that Batchgeo does the job I need it to do very well. Our readers now also recognise it and know how to use it.”

“It is simple to use and I can add explanatory details to the bottom, information boxes and also colour code the markers on the map to highlight themes and key findings.”

“I need to feel confident in the software I am using and also keep my focus on my key findings and getting them across to our readers in the clearest way possible.”

Thirdly is the ability of the software to interact with the reader:

“This interactive school map allowed our readers to explore the figures for the schools in their own area and made the story personally relevant.”

“There is great public interest in the fact that the data showed how segregated many of Northern Ireland’s schools remain – despite all of the political progress in recent years.”

Another popular mapping tool is Tableau which offers more story telling functions and interactivity.

Cheryl Phillips, Data Enterprise Editor at the Seattle Times is an avid fan of using Tableau to visualise her stories and has commented on the Tableau website how:

“Some of our Tableau visualizations have created a lot of buzz among our readers, and have been sent around and posted on other blogs and things like that. Particularly the bicycle accident visualization that we created got a lot of attention.”

“There were a number of comments on the story talking about the visualization. It was gratifying to see that readers were noticing that we were doing something different, and that it wasn’t just a flat, static graphic.”

“If we have data that allows our readers to drill down to their neighbourhood or drill down into a particular subject or topic that’s important to them, then that is something that we need to be doing.”

“Visualizations using Tableau are particularly useful for us, because we can do them so quickly, and we can do them without programming, and we can turn them around in a deadline situation if we need to.” (

A Seattle Times visualisation of bicycle accidents
Source: Seattle Times.(Click on image)

A third way journalists can use mapping software is by using a Flash Interactive using HTML and Java programming but it does involved the use of software that is more, in the belief of Nick Evershed (who uses all three mapping methods), complicated than even GIS:

“Something like QGIS is probably easier than Java Script using GIS you have a graphical interface whereas in Java script you are basically programming blind and you might not know what it looks like until its up in a webpage or browser.”

nick evershed1992
Nick Evershed’s Flash Interactive using HTML and Java programming; Source: The (click on image)

Nick Evershed of The Guardian uses this software extensively to produce visually stunning interactive online maps:

Nick says: “Maps are great way of visualising things geographically, usually it’s the best way of doing it … and then on top of the map itself you have another kind of layer or layers, there’s a lot of different approaches you can do great arcs, do symbols all that kind of stuff so … it just helps actually show certain trends geographically.”

Another important feature of using this software in story telling was the ability to add the more context of the  story with the visualisation itself.

In his Campaign Watch 2013 Australian election interactive map he included a synopsis of the main candidate’s activities:

Nick Evershed’s Flash Interactive using HTML and Java programming with additional context added. Source The
Nick Evershed’s Flash Interactive using HTML and Java programming with additional context added. Click on image
Source The

When asked about the imporance of being able to add extra information regarding the story to the map Nick said: “I think it’s really important particularly with the news stuff but it’s not always easy to do.”

“I mean that actually nearly took as much time as making the map it, getting each one of those stories in because you are coding it in, there’s no automated way to pull it out.”

So now we have an understanding what maps can do and also the power to create great maps to engage the reader, the investigative reporter must still be wary.

Maps are not only seen as a visualisation tool but also as a statement of the creator and a representation of how they see the world and errors can have serious consequences.

An example would be rushing to a hospital only to find it is not where it should be on the map. Ten minutes may have been wasted finding the hospital and the consequences could have been fatal or at the very least an inconvenience.

Much like professional cartographers, journalists as disseminators of information to the public so are also responsible for the maps they distribute to their audiences.

With new mapping tools available to journalists comes responsibility. There are two caveats to using maps in journalism:

The first is that that journalists must have a good appreciation of cartography, being able to produce a good map can be as important as the narrative itself with errors, shoddiness, misplaced emphasis and over complication of the data detracting from the credibly of the story itself and in turn the reputation of the journalist.

This point is best put by Terry Pratchett himself:

“Map-making had never been a precise art on the Discworld. People tended to start off with good intentions and then get so carried away with the spouting whales, monsters, waves and other twiddly bits of cartographic furniture that they often forgot to put the boring mountains and rivers in at all”.

In the UK, the Ordnance Survey is Great Britain’s; “national mapping authority, providing geographic data, relied on by government, business and individuals … Maintaining the definitive record of every geographic feature in Great Britain, and creating innovative, high quality maps and datasets from it and involves people with a wide range of skills.”

As the primary creator of maps in the UK the Ordnance survey has created a small booklet entitled: ‘Cartographic Design Principles’ that outlines the best practices that it believes professionals and budding inexperienced map makers should adhere to.

This information including examples and lots of other cartographic resources are available on their website. The Ordnance Survey believes:

“Through the correct application of cartography, a well-designed map communicates its message clearly and provides a pleasing user experience. We believe that the eight principles in this booklet are fundamental to map design”.

I have created these principles with a quick summary but the reader is encouraged to look further online.

1.          Understanding of user requirements: Who and for what purpose is the map for? What message is trying to be communicated? What information is or isn’t needed?

2.             Consideration of display formats: How is the map to be displayed? What is the output and what scale, resolution, interactivity and functionality options are required. When creating the map at the beginning the creator should have the end product in mind.

3.             A clear visual hierarchy: The creator must prioritise the importance of the all the information on the map, distinguishing between the most important elements on the map which should be emphasised and background information.

4.            Simplicity: Unnecessary information and clutter detracts from the map and can divert attention from the real message. Does certain information even need to be on the map? If not then get rid, ‘Less is more’, (Miles van der Rohe).

5.            Legibility: The message must be presented on the map in a way that is readable, understandable and recognisable. Key to this is colour and size of symbols and text and its contrast with each other and the background, People already have preconceptions of how things should appear on a map i.e. water is blue and the creator must work to these.

6.              Consistency: On the map itself the same symbol should be used consistently to portray a sense of priority, location awareness and scale. Familiarity breads confidence.

7.              Accessibility: Consider distribution formats, user abilities or disabilities (sight /colour blindness?), cost and intuitiveness in use. Assume the user has no cartographic or technical understanding.

8.              Good composition: This consists of the maps relationship to all other information included in the overall product such as scale bar, legend, accompanying text. All information should be harmonious and work together to provide a clear picture of the message. The aim is to achieve balance and also to draw the attention of the reader to what the reader should view first. Where is the eye first drawn?

Hopefully the examples shown above should inspire journalists to seriously consider the power of maps in their reporting and by following the cartographic principles then they should have the knowledge and confidence to create effective maps for story telling.

Oh nearly forgot…, the second caveat when using considering the use of maps in story telling? … .Do you really need to?

Picture of Nick Evershed
Nick Evershed of the Guardian
Source: the Guardian.

Nick Evershed has a very important point:

“Even if you do have a geographic aspect to your dataset, a map it is not always the best way to present it, because it might not actually show anything if you plot it on a map whereas if you put it in a table it might be better placed to display something…”

There are many ways to Rome, as the saying goes and that applies when deciding which mapping software to adopt. Each has their advantages and disadvantages ranging from levels of difficulty, time, detail shown and storytelling capabilities.

It is up to the journalist to decide which works best for them and which is best for their particular story using the cartographic principles above.

Storytelling is a great art, and great art in the form of maps can be great story telling

I thank the following for their contributions to this blog:

Kathryn Tourney

Nick Evershed

Steve Doig

Megan Luther

David Donald

David Herzog

Jennifer LaFleur


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