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- 10% of the news in infographics …

Graphics showing the 9/11-attack

janschwochow1Malofiej 2002: German star on the international infographics-scene, Jan Schwochow, had prepared a horrorshow of 9/11-graphics full of mistakes. Jan has a collection of 1500 graphics and 400 flash-animations from the attack and attack-related stuff like Bin Laden, Afghanistan etc.

Jan focussed his presentation on something seemingly simple. How did the graphics show the flightpaths of the two planes immediately before they crashed into WTC. The result was scary: – Every possible direction was present! – Some graphics even had the planes flying in between the towers before they hit. It was almost funny, had it not been such a direct blow to the credibility of infographics.

The session-title: ‘Have we really learned anything?’ had to be answered with a shameful ‘Yes, we have learned never to trust an infographic the first day after the event’. Early infographics might pretend to tell the truth, but in reality they’re full of mistakes.
Sometimes if such errors finds their way to the written text in a paper, you’ll get an updated story the next day and an apology for getting it wrong. Not so for infographics. The only media that do corrections are the net-media, because they can do it relatively easy.

Someone might think of these mistakes as an isolated incident. Like in – ‘Ok, we might have got it wrong this time, but normally we’re correct’. I disagree. The excellent tv-footage probably helped us do fewer mistakes than we would otherwise have done in a big breaking story. Widely available information is a double-edged sword though. People can doublecheck on you, like Jan Schwochow just did. And it might not be a pretty result.

Please remember that getting facts straight is one thing. Another important area, which this session didn’t enter, is the area of ‘look and feel’ of the graphics. Does the cold and technical graphic style suit such a chaotic event? Should graphics be drawn with or without people? How come the actual crash of the towers wasn’t shown in U.S. graphics, but merely color-coded so as ‘not to upset the readers’ emotional balance’?

Interesting thoughts could arise from these questions, but I suspect no clear answers are out there?

(This article was published in 2002 in the former version of VisualJournalism.com)