Last week, as Juan Antonio Giner and Alberto Cairo tell it, some editors got so swept up in the story of Osama bin Laden's death--a tale dripping with drama and intrigue--that they forgot something critical: they're in the news business, not show business. In a statement running on Nieman Watchdog and endorsed today by 58 journalists from around the world, Giner--the president of a media consulting group--and Cairo--an infographics director at a Brazilian magazine--accuse some news outlets of running "non-factual graphics" (the photo above shows a New York Post spread).
In an email exchange with The Atlantic Wire, Cairo lamented that "at least in some newsrooms, infographics are not seen anymore as journalistic storytelling tools that should respect the same rules of accuracy as the other branches of the discipline." Giner warned that "visual journalism cannot become the first casualty of breaking news." What were the worse offenses? Here's what Cairo had to say:
Cairo told us that some graphics depicted a violent battle at bin Laden's Abbottabad compound "with little al-Qaeda operatives shooting Navy SEALs" (the White House initially said there was a "firefight throughout the operation," only to say later shots were only fired at the beginning of the raid). Did editors "really know that there were al-Qaeda agents shooting [U.S.] helicopters from the building's roof, for instance?" Cairo asked. "No." He pointed to this graphic from the British newspaper The Independent, which depicts guards using "rocket-propelled grenades and guns" from the roof:
Cairo also claimed many graphics employ silhouettes and arrows to show precisely how the operation played out--where U.S. helicopters landed and crashed, say, or how the SEALs entered the compound once they landed--based on "pure speculation," not data released by the White House. He cited this example from The Daily Mail in the U.K. In Step 5, "commandos dodge bullets as bin Laden fires his AK-47 from bedroom window."
Cairo argued that all the "explosions, fire, columns of smoke, little Bin Ladens running away from Navy SEALs were "sensationalist" and, in some cases, "cartoonish." This slide from a slideshow put together by Brazil's UOL was, in fact, a cartoon:
But Cairo added that not all infographics creators mixed fact with fantasy. The New York Times, he said, was "restrained," showing only the compound map and the data released by the CIA about how the raid unfolded. Here's a portion of the graphic the Times used:
Cairo and Giner aren't the only people criticizing the media's visual depiction of bin Laden's death. Gawker's Jim Newell, for example, criticized CBS' The Early Show for distilling the raid into a "hilarious, cheap and brief cartoon with all the visual sizzle of a computer game circa 1992." You can watch the video here. You can also find collections of bin Laden infographics here and here.