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Experience the full Washington Post investigation: washingtonpost.com/topsecretamerica

'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!!)."

By Garance Franke-Ruta  |  July 22, 2010; 2:25 PM ET
 | Tags: top secret america design, top secret america infographics, top secret america web  
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Next: A question from Dana: intelligence agencies and al-Qaeda

Comments

This is just sensationalist reporting and a bad idea at best. Perhaps we should start a web site with the reporters who are taking credit for this. We can publish their names, addresses and phone numbers, all the addresses of property that are titled in their name, their license tags of automobiles that they own. We can put their relatives names and addresses, what they do for a living and what they do in their free time and their observed schedules. Perhaps where their children go to school. All of this would be 'public information' and a one stop shop for people to 'get to know them'. An involuntary public facebook if you will. I suspect the Post and reporters might see this differently.

Posted by: fixerup914 | July 22, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

The Post can congratulate itself about this totally misguided series until the cows come home.

What's been most noticeable about the "interactive setup" of the web design is the way that it has, until now, kept people from posting remarks and interacting with each other about the story. Every one that I know who has read the story and has an opinion about the story wonders first and foremost what the national security implications are with publishing all this data about our intelligence community in one place.

But then, the Post didn't really want to know what people thought about this story, did they?

Posted by: tacheronb | July 22, 2010 11:20 PM | Report abuse

ok lets all step back for a second and regroup...the post reports that the intellegence community has grown out of control since 911...why after all the unconstitutional legislation passed, orders for torture and rendition given by both of the last two administrations does this surprise anyone? should we be concerned about this? hell yes!!! this exactly what happened in 1933 germany after the reichstag fire. same exact playbook, fascism out of control and lets not beat around the bush this is what fascism and corporatism. this is just one more reason to be concerned with where our federal government is taking us, unwillingly and unknowingly...this kind of governemental secrecy is unconstituional and dangerous...and if all of you out there really believe that we need this kind of intelligence operations INSIDE the u.s. to protect us from terrorist half wau around the world living in caves and craping in buckets, then this is no longer the home of the brave and therefore no longer the land of the free...but dont take my word for it here are some experts warnings...

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy” James Madison

“Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpation” James Madison

I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.' To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, not longer susceptible of any definition. Thomas Jefferson

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson

Posted by: abntemplar1508 | July 23, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

On the contrary - the intelligence community draws notice for use of web tools!

IP Address: 192.206.187.60
Country: UNITED STATES
Region: ARIZONA
City: TEMPE
ISP: GENERAL DYNAMICS C4 SYSTEMS INC

http://www.tessonome.com/?p=7090

Posted by: novaloka | July 23, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

What amazes me the most is the repeated bashing of this work by those who either don't understand it or lack the skills to compile this level of information themselves.

Without a doubt, it will go down in the history books as one of the most important pieces of journalism of all times, Pulitzer Prize or not. I would venture to say that if it doesn't win, that is the biggest proof of how true it is.

People still refuse to grasp, or maybe they are not capable of grasping, the full ramifications and implications of this series. Doing that requires your OWN critical thinking and analysis.

If people don't care that virtually everything they write, say or look at is being recorded, along with their dr. tests and naked body scans from the airport, then by that measure ALONE, this series has made a statement that is profound beyond all words.

Hats off for tackling a difficult, controversial and elusive topic that is reported and written masterfully.

Posted by: Tar1 | July 23, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Tar1 write:
"If people don't care that virtually everything they write, say or look at is being recorded..."

Look here Tar1, we are talking about the most prestigious article at one of the most prestigious independent newspapers of the world, and how many comments do you count?

3 per day! Would this have happened in the sixties?

The rest of the human race must have decided wisely that they do care about what's being recorded about their activities on the web and keep their mouth shut...
You don't need a dictatorship to subdue the people.

Posted by: novaloka | July 24, 2010 5:03 AM | Report abuse

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