Developing a good graphic depends primarily on the quality of the information, according to New York Times graphics director Steve Duenes. In an online chat with readers, Duenes said one of his rules is “don’t invent,” by which he means “no guessing.”
We have software that lets us create photo-realistic renderings, but it can be a problem if we don’t know how everything was configured or what it looked like. This may seem like an obvious point, but back in 2003, when Saddam Hussein was captured, just about every news outlet did a diagram of his small hiding place, and not everyone got it right. It happens all the time. We frequently work from building floorplans, photographs, satellite imagery, but as often as possible, graphics staff members go to the scene of a story to do their reporting.
When they get to the scene, staffers make sketches, take photographs and note details that will help them reconstruct an event in a graphic. The next step, Duenes says, is to organize the information clearly and eliminate superfluous detail.
So, if the story is about someone firing a gun in City Hall, we want readers to look at our diagram and quickly understand where the event occurred in the building, and where the important players were when it happened.
“Quickly” is key. Some people will take time to study a graphic, but the best graphics convey the central point at a glance–kind of like a billboard on the highway.
Most of us won’t have the luxury of working for a news organization like the Times, which has 30 people in its graphics department, plus a whole lot more in its multimedia department. But if you keep their principles in mind as you report for multiple platforms, you’ll produce better work. Collect all the information you need at the scene to create an accurate graphic and then keep it simple. Simple enough.