Visualizing the story: How El Mundo covered the world economic crisis with infographics

May 2, 2011. Abbottabad, Pakistan. President Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden. Newsrooms all over the world set to work with only a brief reference statement to go on. Hours later, the CIA publishes a sketch of the complex where the leader of Al Qaeda was supposed to have been. No more information!

“I want a big infographic that explains what happened,” says the main International News editor. In their eyes, visual journalists are magicians who can disguise the lack of information with great illustrations and diagrams that seduce the reader. It seems that the size of the graphic is established by the height of the editor´s jump when reading the first paragraph of a story on the monitor. The higher the jump, the bigger the graphic.

“These guys are incredible,” he says to his colleagues. And he´s right. We need to fill a double-page spread from Madrid, more than 6,500 kilometers from Pakistan and with very little information.

Sept. 15, 2008. New York. Lehman Brothers Holdings goes bankrupt. Is there anyone there? “I want a fever chart of the Dow Jones to break the page from one side to the other,” cries the editor on duty. But wait a minute! We have done that thousands of times. We face the greatest financial and economic crisis of all time and, is this all you can come up with?

Journalists have a subconscious mechanism in the brain that is repeated every time they are faced with a visual problem. And this mechanism is more pronounced in the case of financial graphics. Let me explain. If an editor has new data on tourist arrivals, his biggest concern about the graph is to include an illustration of somebody in a swimsuit lying under a sunshade on the beach.

If it is a graphic on air traffic controllers, the editor will ask us to include a large illustration of a control tower. If we talk about education issues, he will be delighted if the data are displayed as if in a school binder. And if the item is about oil, he will ask for a few barrels to make it look nice.
These are the common areas for journalists. The classics! And there are hundreds of them. It´s a topic worthy of Freudian study. There is a whole universe to dabble in on the Internet. Just type ”Infographics” into your usual search engine.

Making the story local

We are in Madrid, 5,700 miles from New York, but the consequences of the Lehman bankruptcy are taking place about a mile from our newsroom. The Stock Market prices are sinking. Our pockets are empty. Can’t we give it a little more thought? In these situations one feels as if one is in the circus. Someone gives you a whip and says: “Come on , get into the cage, the lions are waiting.”

There is also the editor that provides tons of data about a topic. These data are not linked to each other at all. They do not explain anything to the reader. Worst of all, the reader doesn´t give them a second look. He has no time to explore a page he does not understand at first sight, no matter how much decoration that is on it. We cannot ask our readers to turn into Indiana Jones just to read the newspaper.
The worst enemy of economic graphics is not the editor, it´s the visual journalists themselves.

Economic charts are thought to be boring. They are like Persian torture. Nobody wants to see them. We are very busy with major projects and sometimes do not see the news in front of our noses.

The automation of economic charts was a dream come true. A programmer running an application that solves the nightmare of the market graphics. Every artist´s dream! You will not have to look at an economic graph ever again

That task has become the Systems Department´s responsibility. But now that the crisis hits hard, now that economics and graphics have moved to the front pages of newspapers, automation is not much good.

The crisis came, the greatest crisis to hit our credit cards and, with some exceptions, we still see the same bad habits of the past. EL MUNDO DEL SIGLO XXI newspaper has chosen the risk premium as Personality of the Year, as well as the differential paid by European countries in relation to the interest rate of 10-year German bonds. Have we gone mad?

The risk premium has been lying to several European presidents, has put the Euro against the ropes and is endangering the European Union itself. A large tsunami that breaks every day in domestic companies and sweeps away millions of jobs.

Spain has lived through the worst years in its recent history. In 2007, the unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, the lowest in the last 20 years. We had a surplus in public accounts of 2 percent. Today, we have an unemployment rate above 22 percent and a deficit above 8.2 percent. The outlook for the next two years could not be more negative: a decrease of 1.5 percent for 2012 and of 0.2 percent for 2013.

The brilliant illustrator Ulises Culebro put a face to the risk premium. A monster hooked up to a fever chart falling into the abyss. Ricardo Martinez, our great newspaper cartoonist, has also portrayed it as a monster who lives in the House of Representatives hugging the president in office.

Anecdotally, “Premium” (la prima) in Spain has several meanings. The most common refers to your uncle’s daughter, your cousin. Thus, the obvious jokes about the cousin’s risk and her family have spread like wildfire in the streets and in the opinion pages.

Economic graphics are a real stress test for newsrooms

Economic news has assaulted the front pages. It is relatively easy to build a headline. The really hard part is matching it with the image of the day. We are tired of seeing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy on the opening pages. Financial photos are repetitive and uninformative. The automation of the graphics does not work, because the information actually changes just before the deadline.

Infographics are the best resource. They distance one from the competition and allow for the optimization of precious page space.

The solution is simple. The graphics should be treated as genuine economic breaking news. We have very little time to perform and touch on issues of great relevance to the reader. We can’t bank on the first information the editor brings. A newspaper visual journalist should be ready to cover this kind of news too. It’s all part of the job.
And you must ask questions, and then answer them. Your questions are the same questions that the reader asks. Here are some examples.

  • U.S. downgrade: U.S. rating agencies Moody’s, Standard & Poors and Fitch are responsible for rating the debt of countries. What are these agencies? What are they qualified to do? How do they work?
  • Global economy: We live in a global economy. What happens in Italy, Hungary, Greece and New York affects our country. What is the situation in these countries? Why do they concern us? What are the connections to the markets?
  • Spanish debt: Our own country’s debt has increased and is one of the causes of this serious situation. What has state money been spent on? What are the deadlines to pay the debt? How much? Is debt secured?
  • Financial sector: The situation in the financial sector following the collapse of Lehman Brothers has been severely damaged. Now we know that we are vulnerable. How many toxic assets are there? Why are they merging?
  • European Union: Lack of leadership in the EU has led to contradictory messages that have affected the markets. What are the bailout plans? Who puts up the bailout money? Why aren’t they working?
    Reforms: The luke warm attempts to implement structural reforms in the countries are postponing the end of the crisis. What are these reforms? What models exist that are actually working?

These questions are very complicated to answer. We cannot expect a visual journalist to know all about the financial mechanisms, but we can expect a willingness to learn. The top markets experts are in the Department of Economics. The visual journalist has to talk and work with them. We could be disappointed by a bad reception to our proposals, on occasions but we could also get pleasant surprises.

The expert can analyze whether your details are correct or not. On more than one occasion data you thought reliable might not be published because there were doubts about where it came from.

How to turn answers into an infographic

After locating the question, we must find the exact data to solve it. We are not looking for thousands of data. We are looking for THE data. One fact is better than ten data. I always ask the economics editor what is the purpose of the information. Then we eliminate any unrelated data and we are left with those most relevant to the topic.

From here, we must work on a sketch of the graph. Generally, it should be done after 6 p.m., when the markets are closed. The sketch is the score that will guide our chart. From the sketch you can lay out the spaces and you can risk more on the design of the page. When we talk about information design, it is a big mistake to work from memory.

The result of these graphs is rarely “beautiful.” A Visual journalist’s job is not to disguise the information for the page to look beautiful. Our job is to explain what is happening. That’s what we do.

We must be attentive to the work others do. A great exercise is to keep visual graphics that we like from other newspapers and show them to economics editors. Not ,of course, to portray our work as bad, but to get ideas and try to improve them for future work.

The visual journalist should seek a personal style and touch the public with his work. In the newspapers, we work at high speed. The best visual journalist is not the fastest, but it is a factor to consider when faced with economic breaking news. It is important not to risk too much with your proposal.

Bin Laden’s death was an important event, but now it’s history. Every day we are confronted with surprising news in remote places, stories accompanied by large infographics worthy of applause from the visual community. However, we pay little attention to this economic earthquake that is emptying our pockets. Beware! The monster is still alive and kicking.

INTERACTIVE GRAPHICS

 

 

Juantxo Cruz Ortiz de Landázuri is the Infographic Editor for El Mundo.