Category Archives: Design

Newscast chartjunk: a totally unscientific analysis

“When a graphic is taken over by decorative forms or computer debris, when the data measures and structures become Design Elements,  when the overall design purveys Graphical Style rather than quantitative information, then that graphic may be called a duck in honor of the duck-form store, ‘Big Duck.’ For this building the whole structure is itself decoration, just as in the duck data graphic.”

the_big_duck

This was written by Edward Tufte, a Yale statistician who could be tentatively called the world’s biggest expert on the design of information graphics. Using the concept of a duck, he developed the terms “chartjunk” and “data-ink ratio” in his beautiful book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information to describe graphic displays of information that overwhelm the information itself with extraneous and irrelevent design elements.

For some reason, chartjunk is a mainstay of the information graphics featured on network television newscasts. I will use the term “signal-to-noise ratio” to refer to the ratio of the information content of a newscast to all of the extraneous production factors that go into broadcasting that information, like elaborate sets, advanced green-screen technology, gimmicky re-enactments, fancy graphics, and other frills. I have an unproven hypothesis that the signal-to-noise ratio of informational graphics displayed during a newscast  directly correlates with the signal-to-noise ratio of the newscast as a whole.

For example, the following graphic was played on The National during a story about Maple Leaf foods and its newly revamped factory.

national-graphic1

national-graphic2

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The entire sequence took about 23 seconds, during which the narrator introduced the survey and read out the results. All of this information can easily and clearly be represented with this small table:

national-graphic4

Taking in this amount of information would probably take under 5 seconds for the average human, especially considering that it’s not really that interesting (who cares what the difference is between people who no longer buy Maple Leaf and people who no longer eat Maple Leaf?). The salient point, that people are still wary of Maple Leaf meat, hardly requires any quantitative information at all.

But conceding that the producers of the program thought this graphic was a worthwhile addition to the story, let’s analyze it a little further. Tufte gives the following equation for the data-ink ratio:

data-ink

Giving the CBC the benefit of the doubt and ignoring TV screen size, the data-ink ratio of their graphic is probably less than 0.1, much less if we take into account the time dimension. That means that not only does 90% of the graphic have no information content whatsoever, but that the 90% is competing with the 10% that actually is information for the viewer’s attention.

An important thing to note at this point is that I consider The National to be one of the best newscasts available, and it’s sobering every time I see a dumb graphic like this one and imagine all of the time and expense that goes into producing fancy animated backgrounds and other junk instead of actually producing good information. The most sobering aspect of these graphics, though, is the fact that CBC is actually near the high-end of the newscast hierarchy;  graphics on other channels are often much, much worse, and they reflect quite accurately the abysmal quality of other newscasts in their entirety.

We can compare the CBC to newscasts like Fox and CNN to get a better idea of the correlation I’m talking about. Here is a screenshot of CNN’s election night coverage, courtesy of djspyhunter (here‘s the Youtube clip):

spaceball1

As you can see, the signal-to-noise ratio here is much worse than that of the CBC graphic, and it is exacerbated by the fact that several different data sets are being displayed concurrently, with no clear boundaries between them. This kind of graphic is very characteristic of CNN’s overall signal-to-noise ratio, which is aptly exemplified by a feature they introduced on November 4th that they refer to as a “hologram”:

Obviously this system adds nothing to a traditional split-screen other than much more superfluous junk that distracts from the actual conversation, and suggests that the content of the conversation is only incidental to the delivery system.

Here is a graphic from Fox with only one data point:

foxnewsgraph

As always, the background is heavily animated in order to be as distracting as possible. Here is a table showing the same data:

usbancorp

It was shown for about half the time that the CBC one was shown for, but it also has less than half the information, which gives it roughly the same data-ink ratio. As in the case of CNN, this kind of graphic is indicative of the signal-to-noise ratio of the rest of the channel’s programming:

Okay I admit that may have been slightly unfair, but I think my point is clear. Tufte states succinctly,

The conditions under which many data graphics are produced–the lack of substantive and quantitative skill of the illustrators, dislike of quantitative evidence, and contempt for the intelligence of the audience–guarantee graphic mediocrity.

And, as I have been arguing, these same factors often affect the entire newscast as well. We can assume that good newscasters respect their audience enough to treat them like intelligent adults. This would involve the assumption that intelligent adults can handle small amounts of statistical or numerical data without becoming bored, that they can appreciate the news-value of the numbers themselves, and that they consider bombardment with useless information to be an insult to their intelligence. Good newscasters, we would assume, try to devote as much of the time and space available to them to disseminating timely, accurate, insightful and thought-provoking information. Fox and CNN clearly do not respect their viewers, nor do they consider them intelligent adults. Much more of their time and energy goes into developing new, advanced forms of chartjunk to clutter their screens and obscure their information, rather than into increasing the quality of their journalism and the accuracy of their reporting. While viewers do always have the option of changing the channel, it is unfortunate that the Fox and CNN approaches to newscasting seem to be taking over all the other stations as well, including the CBC; many media critics would cite this tendency as a symptom of the struggle for market share and advertising revenue where the desire to raise viewership numbers always trumps the importance of good broadcasting.