Thursday, September 17, 2009

The wrong way to do it

John Amato has this screen shot up at Crooks and Liars with the comment "What more needs to be said?" Quite a bit.

This is a terrible graphic. When I was a history teaching assistant in grad school, one of the most important things I learned in our short teaching orientation, was an observation on how people assimilate information. In its simplest form, there are two types of learners, verbal and visual. at one end of the spectrum are students absorb information entirely in verbal form, either from reading or lectures. At the other end are those who need visual cues, for whom a picture literally worth a thousand words (actual mileage may vary). I'm in that group. I want my history books to have charts and graphs and, especially, maps and lots of them. I can get more out of a well designed map -- and get it a lot faster -- than I get out of a dozen pages of text. I'm a very tough critic of just what constitutes a well designed map. Most of the newer textbooks I perused had sucky maps. Bach at the verbal end of the spectrum, are those people who can't read a map at all. In teaching history, the lesson was explain everything twice, once in words and once in images. In other fields, I believe, the divide is between abstract theory and hands on experimenting.

I didn't hear this Andrea Mitchell Report, so I don't know if her verbal presentation was any good. I do know, however, that this graphic is a disaster at conveying information. Two bars of the same size and color look, well, the same. Without listening carefully or reading closely -- both verbal assimilations of information -- a visually oriented person comes away with the impression that US doctors are evenly divided on the public option, when those favoring it outnumber those opposed by a ratio of better than two to one. For the graphic to communicate the message accurately to visually oriented consumers of news, the graphic needs to look something like this:

In a superb graphic, the two bars would also be in different colors, say red for opposed and green for supporting. To take into consideration certain types of color blindness, they would be in shades of those colors, say dark for supporting and light for opposing. The greater weight of the dark color would reinforce the message that there are more people on that side of the divide.

I'm, no doubt, giving them too much credit for having thought this through, but this presentation looks like the visual counterpart to the "he said, she said" false equivalency that dominates the verbal news media. It's no longer enough to present everything else as mere opinion in which both sides are equally as valid and if there aren't to valid sides to the issue to promote the radical fringe into validity. Now they need to represent issues where there are measurable quantitative differences as being somehow equal.

Television is a visual medium. They should be able get this aspect of their reporting right. It's the minimum requirement of their jobs, not an extra credit assignment. Andrea Mitchell should fire her art director and someone who gets this or, even better, have her art director contract me as a consultant and send me buckets of money. They can get me at bargain rates if they offer a good healthcare package.

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