Media lessons from the Giffords shooting

9:21 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Hacking the News,Information Design

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting today set the media world into its tragic-breaking-news frenzy. This one was a bit different than the handful of others I’ve experienced, though, in that it was so highly political and politicized. At the end of the day (and beginning of the next one), I’ve sat down to take stock of what I learned as a journalist today. A lot of these are very obvious “duh factors,” as my family is wont to call them, but I think they’re worth sharing.

Unfortunately, Storify doesn’t seem to want to let me embed multiple scripts* in one page. Here is the first of my three points, “Think Before You Tweet.” Or you can jump to my other points, about the danger of implying causation with correlation and the visual takeaway of Sarah Palin’s crosshair map.

*I’m not entirely sure, at nearly 2 a.m., why I broke them into separate blocks at all. It seemed logical at the time…

Two: Be aware of implications of correlations

Three: Use evocative images carefully in design



A cowgirl goes to DC

3:02 am by Heather Billings. Filed under: Information Design,The Future

I don’t normally engage in personal entries on this blog, but as this was somewhat topical, I decided to include it here.

I don’t remember the interview, the interviewee, or the story topic. All I remember is a passing comment:

“In a few years, I’ll look for your name in the Washington Post.”

It was three years ago, or possibly four. I was a journalism student at Fresno State, plugging away at a degree that baffled my parents, my friends and even sometimes myself. I despised reporting. The interviewing process made me incredibly uncomfortable. I was — am — an introvert. I enjoyed telling stories, but the process of gathering them has always been painful for me. I preferred videography and photography because I could hide behind the camera.

I remember laughing at the interviewee’s statement. Journalism students from Fresno State don’t end up at the Washington Post. I wrote the story and it ran in the Collegian. As multimedia editor, I posted it myself that night to the paper’s Website.

I spent the next couple of years playing with the online side of journalism, mostly in an editorial role. I got offered a job as Web editor at the Merced Sun-Star two semesters before I graduated.

“Keep in touch,” he said. I was on cloud nine because someone actually thought my self-taught skills worthy of employment.

Then I decided to go to grad school. I applied to Medill, UC Berkeley, Arizona State. Berkeley’s rejection letter came first. I was crushed.

When I got accepted to Medill, I couldn’t believe they had actually admitted me. I couldn’t believe I was good enough to get in. I also couldn’t believe how expensive it was.

I went to Arizona State instead. It was possibly the best decision I’ve ever made, but that’s another post.

I sent out internship applications the next summer to all sorts of places: everything from the New York Times to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to little dinky papers I’d never heard of.

The little dinky papers were interested.

Journalism students from Fresno State don’t end up at the Washington Post.

I spent the summer as Webmaster for ASU’s News21 program. I knew I’d gotten the job because I was a student at ASU. I doubted they would have hired me if I’d been a freelancer.

Facing graduation this May, I made a concerted effort to get out internship applications early this fall: New York Times, USA Today, Denver Post, Washington Post. I figured I had nothing to lose. I also figured there was no possibility of getting any of them, despite scoring some stellar recommendations. I planned to apply to my second- and third-tier choices over Christmas break.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

I got a call from the Post.

They wanted to interview me.

The Washington Post wanted to interview me.

Today, they offered me the internship.

Maybe there’s hope for a hometown Fresno girl after all.




When creating interactive infographics, put the user first

3:30 pm by Heather Billings. Filed under: Information Design

From USC’s neon tommy: Annenberg Digital News.
See the original post here

In keeping with my last blog post about the importance of good information design, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at an infographic I feel can be improved. Today’s entry comes courtesy USC. Yes, I realize this is a student-produced infographic and therefore can’t be held to professional standards, but I think it makes a good case study.

The good

In this particular case, you’ve got a great subject for an infographic: How the heck California proposes to balance its precarious budget. It’s a great subject because it’s not something that most people can easily wrap their heads around, and it’s something – their state’s economy – that they need to understand because it directly impacts them. And it’s easy, once you’ve reached the end, to see how much programs cost in proportion to each other.

The bad

The user has very little control of the information and is constrained to “page next” to see the next bit of data revealed. This, I think, is this graphic’s fatal flaw, and is what I see quite often in professional interactives of the same sort. What if I’m most interested in how Medicare would be affected? Or what if I really just want to see where the biggest chunk of change is coming from? Why can’t I just jump there? The information designer’s job is to try to anticipate what the user is going to want to know, and then provide easy ways for him to get his questions answered.

How I’d do this: Display the entire chart, and let the user hover over the sections to see what that section represents. Also add a list to the side of programs, ranked from most expensive to least expensive or vice versa. Take the user to the same place whether he clicks on the list item or hovers over the section of the chart. This could use ActionScript that’s (more than likely) almost the same as what is already there; it would just be deployed in a different manner.

The ugly

It’s not very pretty. It looks to me as if this was just done with Flash’s shape tools. Simply rounding the corners, using colors in the same family, and introducing a tween to slide each section up as you click through would help. Putting the graph’s X/Y axis on its own layer and locking that layer would prevent the distracting jumping around that happens between frames.

But while “being pretty” is important, more important is the way the user interacts with the information. So while there’s a great deal of improvement that can be made graphically, it’s definitely secondary to how the thing actually works.

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