MEDIA WATCH: Rising Use of Infographics




By Robert Coalson


Smart newspaper designers have long argued that a good illustration can make a point far more effectively than any number of words. In Russia, this idea has just started catching on over the last couple of years. While there is obviously still a long way to go here in the development of so-called "infographics," there is considerable enthusiasm for the concept among journalists, and progress is made nearly every day.


More and more of the nation's papers are including maps, diagrams and charts in their reports, a phenomenon that most likely will also help gradually make the texts of articles more precise and detailed. Since reporters are required to gather the data that is used to create a good infographic, they must train themselves to think of and ask the kinds of questions that lead to disciplined journalism rather than mere commentary.


One regional paper I know of has been doing USA Today-style graphics of reader opinion polls regularly for about the last year. The editor of the paper, who originally resisted this innovation because he consideredillustrations to be just filler, tells me that this practice has done a lot to b ring his journalists closer to their readers. Some of his reporters now tell him this feature is one of their best sources of story ideas, and, as a result, the whole paper has become more relevant to local readers.


Of course, careless or unscrupulous journalists can mislead with pictures at least as easily as with words. I remember being struck once by a graph in Kommersant that seemed to indicate that the value of Internet advertising sold in Russia in 1999 was nearly the same as it was in the United States. Only after studying the graph far more closely than the average newspaper reader ever would did I notice that the U.S. figure was presented in billions of dollars, while that of Russia was presented in millions. I hope this dis-infographic didn't lead any busy executives to start up Russian web sites in hopes of getting a piece of this illusory pie.


On the other hand, though, creative journalists can use this art not merely to efficiently convey statistical information but also to provoke consideration of broader issues. An excellent example of this craft appeared last week in Moskovsky Komsomolets.


In a stroke of genius, MK had the brilliant idea of comparing President Vladimir Putin's recent state of the nation address with Boris Yeltsin's 1995 effort. The editors reasoned logically that in 1995, the nation faced many of the same issues it does today f specifically, economic development, corruption, conflict with Chechnya and center-region relations. Therefore, a comparison might give some indication of how the country's political and social climates have changed with the onset of a new regime. They ran their results under the headline, "Now Everyone Knows What Putin Wants."


In 1995, for instance, Yeltsin mentioned Chechnya 18 times, while this year Putin referred to the republic just twice. Maybe the president thinks the issue is resolved.


The most telling statistics that Moskovsky Komsomolets unearthed were related to civil-society issues. In 1995, Yeltsin referred to "democracy" 11 times and to "reforms" 13 times. Putin, in contrast, thought "reforms" worth mentioning only twice and made it through his entire speech without using the word "democracy" even once.


Similarly, Yeltsin referred to "Europe" 13 times in 1995, most often in the context of Russia's rejoining the community of modern European nations and being further integrated into European affairs. Putin did not refer to Europe once. Yeltsin also specifically mentioned "human rights" three times in 1995, while Putin was silent on this subject.


The impression created by this powerful comparison was magnified by a quotation printed alongside from Alexander Kuvayev, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party. Kuvayev particularly applauded the part of Putin's speech in which he criticized the nonstate media for its excesses, but he doubted whether the president had the "political will" to really create "a strong centralized state."


In short, in just 20 or so square centimeters of space, MK managed to present provocative, although not conclusive, evidence of how the winds of change are blowing these days, while other papers devoted whole rolls of newsprint to articles speculating on the same subject. That's what a good infographic is all about.


Robert Coalson works for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.