Graphics Journalism: In USA Today, Some of Its `Snapshots' Have Not Given the Full Picture. (Journalist's Trade)

By Hamilton, John Maxwell; Perlmutter, David D. et al. | Nieman Reports, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Graphics Journalism: In USA Today, Some of Its `Snapshots' Have Not Given the Full Picture. (Journalist's Trade)


Hamilton, John Maxwell, Perlmutter, David D., Vines, Emily Arnette, Nieman Reports


On January 22,1997, USA Today ran its customary Snapshot in the lower-left corner of Page One. Given intense feelings about the killing of animals to make fur coats, the paper's lead graphic of the day qualified as news. According to Responsive Management, cited as the source, a whopping 86 percent of adults either strongly or moderately agreed that "people should be free to choose to wear fur." To get that many Americans to agree about anything is to tap into sentiments akin to those for the flag.

Perhaps to convey that spirit, USA Today's graphic artists created a nifty, attention-grabbing pie chart superimposed on Davy Crockett's all-American coonskin cap. The tag line was "I'm OK, your fur's OK."

What USA Today's Snapshot did not report was that the Fur Information Council of America (FICA) paid Responsive Management to do this poll. Had they known that, busy readers might have stopped briefly to question the data. Was the survey conducted in a way that made its results completely unbiased? Or were the numbers accurate but ambiguous? Were Americans saying it was okay to wear fur? Or were they responding that freedom to choose was an inalienable right? If the latter, wasn't it more interesting that 11 percent would limit fellow Americans' free economic choice in order to protect furry creatures? That, too, would be news, but would lend itself to quite a different backdrop, a pie chart superimposed tin a splayed Bambi.

Not so long ago, newspapers had just about as much interest in dressing up as the Amish. But fear of losing readers to TV and more recently to the Internet, and the advent of new graphics technology, has changed that. Editors are investing in presses that print brilliant colors, in photographic equipment that gets the most out of images, and bigger layout and design staffs.

USA Today has been a leader in this graphics revolution. Along with its widely emulated weather map, Snapshots are a signature item. On the five days it publishes each week, the newspaper runs Snapshots on Page One of each of its four sections. "Snapshots are part of our strategy to establish a consistent identity for the paper, one that sets USA Today apart from other newspapers," Richard Curtis, managing editor for graphics and photography, wrote several years ago. "They are a clear (some would say persistent) signal that USA Today is a visual newspaper." Proud of its work, the newspaper uses Snapshots from the previous year in a calendar it gives to advertisers and others.

Several years ago, curious how graphics measure up as sound journalism, we looked in detail at the Snapshots appearing on USA Today's front page during January 1997, a month chosen at random. Intrigued by the journalistic failings we found, we later looked at two other randomly selected months: April 2001 and January 2002. In our entire investigation--in which we checked the accuracy, clarity and sourcing of each Snapshot published--about one-third of them fell short of established journalism standards.

We started our analysis by assessing the fundamental verity of journalism: getting facts right. Each of the months we scrutinized had 22 Snapshots. Three were inaccurate in January 1997, five in April 2001, and two in January 2002. A few errors were small: A January 1997 graph said losses to private insurers due to highway crashes were $82.76 billion a year; in fact, they were $82.215 billion. An April 2001 Snapshot reported that Williston, North Dakota had a mean temperature of 40.1 degrees. The source for the graphic put the mean temperature at 40.8 degrees.

Other mistakes were more substantial. What follows are some examples:

* A Yankelovich survey found that 51 percent of respondents did not want a genetic test to warn them that they were susceptible to certain diseases; 46 percent said they wanted to know. A 1997 Snapshot reversed the figures, changing the message. …

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