Ethical standards for infographics

Infographics.  You may not know what to call them, but you’ve seen them. They’re those colorful visual representations of data, economic and demographic trends, or knowledge bases sprinkled liberally throughout print and online media.  If there’s a cache of data out there, a clever graphic designer will come up with a way to represent it as an infographic.  For the visually curious, infographics are a thought-provoking intersection of art and communication that may represent one of the purest realizations yet of Marshall McLuhan’s prescient sixties-era epiphany that “the medium is the message.”

As an adjunct to editorial content, infographics pack a hefty punch.  They perk up the black-and-white page and, at the same time, coddle readers’ computer-age impatience with lengthy narrative content. As news outlets search for ways to compete with one another more effectively and to retain an audience whose attention span is on a downward trend, an increasing number of infographics are being published.  A sampling of a few mass-market magazines demonstrates the trend.  In a single issue, Fortune Magazine had fifteen infographics. Money Magazine had twenty-five. Scientific American ten, and Time and Newsweek seven and five, respectively.

Unlike old-fashioned bar graphs, in which visual representations yield one-dimensional conclusions, infographics present data in a more engaging format and yield multi-dimensional insights. More importantly, the very process of data collection and design reveals interconnections that might otherwise remain opaque when described narratively. Like the tour guide standing in the piazza among throngs of tourists and holding aloft a flag to signal a group’s gathering spot, the infographic designer becomes the viewers’ guide, charting a coherent path through information overload and, along the way, providing insights that are often highly original.

Take a look, for example, at an interactive infographic by Moritz Stefaner called “How scientific ideas flow around the world,” tracking scientific collaboration across the globe.  Stefaner’s graphic demonstrates what is happening in scientific research in an era of ever-faster interconnectivity and efficient data sharing. What the design reveals is that scientists are actively sharing information with other scientists in complex, overlapping collaborations that yield discoveries and innovations across national borders and academic disciplines.

Look, too, at what might be this year’s most important infographic. It was recently published in the New York Times accompanying an editorial by columnist Charles Blow. The graphic presents comparative data gathered by Bertelsmann Stiftung that charts social-justice measurements for member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.  For Americans, the portrait is anything but pretty. The conclusions pack a powerful punch straight to the core of American self-esteem.  Don’t bother looking at the top or even the middle of the chart. Scroll down to the bottom where the U.S. sits in the bottom five based on measures of poverty prevention, child poverty, senior-citizen poverty, income inequality, and health rating.  The only other countries with overall social-justice ratings below America’s are Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey. The sobering implications make this one infographic that every American citizen and politician (especially in an election year) should closely examine.

These two examples of infographics demonstrate how effectively information can be condensed into easily understood, fact-driven visuals.  There is, however, a glitch. I call it the “Grande Odalisque” problem.  The phrase refers to the image of a courtesan painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814.  In the painting, the courtesan faces away from the observer, displaying her anatomically distorted back and pelvic area.  The painter, with an audacious flourish for the time, made visual through these intentional distortions an idealized form of the female body and of desire itself.

Ingres’ decision to distort the female form for symbolic reasons is the same choice that today’s visual designers face.  They too will need to ask themselves whether they choose fealty to reality or exaggeration to prove a point. And like the audience who first studied Ingres’ painting and struggled to comprehend its radical anatomical exaggerations, today’s viewers of infographics will find it necessary to discern what is fact and what is fiction.

For two graphic designers, Juan Antonio Giner of Britain and Alberto Cairo of Brazil, this issue came to the fore with the killing of Osama bin Laden and inaccuracies in infographics representing the events leading to his death.

What Giner and Cairo observed was that designers (responding to what were, admittedly, early, unverified reports) jazzed up their graphics in a way that confused fiction with verifiable fact. Giner and Cairo reasoned that if infographics purport to give the appearance of reporting factual information, then the standards for their accuracy should be as stringent as those for narrative journalism.  To that end, Giner and Cairo created a six-point checklist that was published on Harvard University’s Nieman Watchdog website (their tag line: “questions the press should ask”). Giner and Cairo reasoned further that graphic designers who produce infographics for news sources should be reclassified as visual journalists and be expected to design within the professional and ethical guidelines of this new designation.

Many graphic designers apparently agree with Giner and Cairo. As of May 2011, 106 of them, from 27 countries, have endorsed and signed onto the following statement of principles.

  1. An infographic is, by definition, a visual display of facts and data.  Therefore, no infographic can be produced in the absence of reliable information.
  2. No infographic should include elements that are not based on known facts and available information.
  3. No infographic should be presented as being factual when it is fictional or based on unverified assumptions.
  4. No infographic should be published without crediting its source(s) of information.
  5. Information graphics professionals should refuse to produce any visual presentation that includes imaginary components designed to make it more “appealing” or “spectacular.”  Editors should refrain from asking for graphics that don’t stick to available evidence.
  6. Infographics are neither illustrations nor “art.”  Infographics are visual journalism and must be governed by the same ethical standards that apply to other areas of the profession.


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