'Top Secret America' draws notice for use of Web tools
The Post's "Top Secret America" series has spurred a great deal of debate in national security circles -- but it has also been a topic of discussion among designers and new media observers intrigued by the series' use of databases and interactive elements to help tell the story.
Many have praised the series:
• The New America Foundation's Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age blog: "It's no secret that we live in a time when the news most likely to be consumed is that which is served bite-sized to readers, ideally in 140 characters or, if necessary, 140 words...With this in mind, the form and delivery of this week's Washington Post investigation, "Top Secret America," has piqued my interest even more than the content of the story itself (although perhaps my colleagues at New America's Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative will feel differently). That the Post had the financial resources to support a two-year-long investigative project is reassuring for the state of journalism, but not shocking; after all, it's still one of the country's top newspapers. As others have begun to note, the Post's editors broke with convention by publishing the series on Monday, instead of in the Sunday paper, to reach a broader national audience who read The Post online. Even more, it's the form of Dana Priest and William M. Arkin's Post investigation that shows the potential for something new: It takes years of research and turns it into digestible pieces for the click-happy dilettante readers of the Internet. This is in no way to suggest that the form is dumbing down the meat of the argument; rather, it gives readers the news they need in the medium they want."
• Silicon Cowboy: "The Washington Post today revealed a smart new online interactive investigative report called Top Secret America. It's brilliant not only for its content, but for its stunningly effective use of a variety of online media tools....Importantly, the Washington Post chose not to simply throw the investigation into cyberspace and hope it got read. Realizing that a journalistic investigation of this magnitude - with results this stunning - should be given as much chance for exposure and interaction as possible, they've incorporated a variety of social media tools into the report itself to enhance the user experience. Each of these is a gem, but in it's entirety the project is a storehouse of media best practices."
• Information Aesthetics: "The project ... seems to put the newspaper on the data-visualization-as-journalism map, still dominated by the New York Times infographics department."
• Fast Company Design blog: "You could spend hours trolling the site, and that's precisely the point. The Post has a rich tradition of crack investigative journalism, but it's been slow to deepen its storytelling through digital tools. This is by far the most detailed, comprehensive online data visualization we've seen from a newspaper. Hat's off to the Post for finally figuring out how to exploit, instead of feel exploited by, the Internet."
But others have raised questions about the presentation of information, the business model underlying the presentation and whether the data -- even though obtained from public sources -- could represent something newly in need of being classified:
• Flowing Data: "Of main interest: a network diagram shows organizations and their top secret activities and a map shows the geographic distribution of government organizations and companies within Top Secret America. Click on a specific organization for within group breakdowns. At this point it gets a little confusing with drill-down pie charts, especially if you're just browsing, and a spiral view is also offered which feels extraneous. The overall story and heavy research, however, makes it worth clicking through the clunky at times set of interactives."
• Michael Roston at True/Slant: "Maybe the Washington Post wants to preserve some modicum of purity in its Pulitzer Prize-grade coverage of duplication and mismanagement in the intelligence community. If that's why the 'immersive reading experience' is ad-free, it's reminiscent of the 'news under glass in a museum' approach that I've criticized before. If you spend all this time and effort preparing a big story that isn't controlled by the vagaries of the meme-chasing internet news cycle, and even come up with an innovative way to deliver it, you should also find a way to pay for it. If shows prepared in the public interest for PBS can have underwriters, surely the Post could have selected a suitable, conflict-of-interest-free advertiser for the scores of repeat visitors reading this story yesterday, today, tomorrow, and in the weeks ahead."
• The Christian Science Monitor: "In recent years the US has consistently pushed a "mosaic theory" of intelligence gathering. This holds that individually harmless pieces of information, when combined with other pieces, can produce a composite picture that reveals national security vulnerabilities....if a government organization had used the same declassified information to produce the same database as "Top Secret America," that database could be classified and withheld from the public, under the mosaic theory."
• The National Security Archives: "Something continues to nag me about The Post's project: In an editorial note, The Post states that it originally included additional "data points," and later eliminated them after "one government body" objected. ("Another agency" objected to the entire website -Fortunately for us, The Post decided not to pull the plug!!)."
July 22, 2010; 2:25 PM ET
| Tags: top secret america design, top secret america infographics, top secret america web
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