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Summer 2004
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"Crossing Borders"
A quarterly column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


Mapping the News

Doug RichardsonWhat the world needs now is understanding. This was the overarching theme that I challenged geographers and the media to consider as we opened the Mapping the News conference last month at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The meeting, which was cosponsored by the AAG, the National Geographic Society, and Esri, explored the growing interaction of geography, maps, and GIS in the reporting of the news.

Our goal in organizing the Mapping the News conference was to bring geographers and GIS experts together with leading journalists and senior editors from major media organizations to discuss how maps and an understanding of geographical context are integral to effective media coverage of news events, and how geography and GIS can help the media to tell the story and the public to better understand the news. The conference succeeded beyond my expectations, as the media presence and interest were very strong, the presentations were substantive and on target, and keynote speaker Bob Kerrey provided an eloquent and compelling call for the need for geography and GIS in understanding events in our world today.

Panels of geographers, media cartographers, and journalists covered Mapping the News topics ranging from elections mapping, health issues, and crime reporting to geography and government news, investigative reporting and GIS, imagery and TV, and social responsibility and the public's right to know. AAG President Alec Murphy and former Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer, now with Esri, were among the many speakers who ably represented geography and GIS in these discussions.

Senior reporters and editors from many of the world's major media organizations, including the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, CBS News, the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, TIME Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Knight-Ridder, the Columbia School of Journalism, USA TODAY, and the Washington Post, as well as numerous regional newspapers and Internet news outlets, engaged geographers and senior governmental press officials in wide ranging discussions about the expanding role and sophistication of maps in the media and their evolving role, not simply as a locational addendum to the news story but as an integral narrative means to help convey the essential context and meaning of a news event.

This trend in the use of maps as core narrative devices in telling the news story is evident in the greatly enhanced sophistication and presence of maps now being used in publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many of the national news weeklies over the past five years. Other publications are sure to follow in the years ahead, and we are already seeing more pervasive use of maps in the electronic media, including animated and dynamic maps on the television and the Internet news outlets. This trend in the mass media, particularly on television, offers far-reaching new possibilities for improving map literacy and stimulating geographic education in the general public and among young people in the United States and around the world.

It is also certain that geographers and the GIS community will have plenty to say and, hopefully, plenty to do to help improve the quality, context, and integrity of these maps as they proliferate in the media. There will also be an important role for geographers in examining the meanings conveyed by maps increasingly used in the media, including the distortions or inaccuracies that can result from inadequate or manipulative map design, areas in which geographers have conducted substantial research and can offer special insight.

The Mapping the News conference was one of those rare events that resonated with the feel of history being made. As keynote speaker Bob Kerrey, a former senator and current president of the New School University in New York, said, "Geography and mapping applications are taking place in the context of a highly networked world. This is a crucial point because it signals that what is powering this renewal are the choices being made by tens of millions of individuals who are using geography to answer some of life's most important questions…. Among the most important needs is to begin collecting regional and global data so that we can orient to an expanded set of facts as we try to measure our status and our progress. We need to visualize that data, bring it alive with skilled storytelling…and use it for reasoned and global public debate about the great overarching challenges we face: how to sustain our existence on this planet; how to continue the expansion of democracy; how to produce a world that is more fair and just; and how to respond to mind numbing demographic, environmental, and health catastrophes. Mapping the news is a very big idea. It just might be a way for us to realize our highest and most virtuous aspirations."

It is clear that what the world needs now is understanding—not only understanding of the world but also understanding in the world. Geography and GIS technologies can play key roles in achieving both of these kinds of understanding. But we will need to speak to others than ourselves if we are to fully contribute to this understanding. Building bridges to the media will strengthen our ability to bring geographical knowledge, research, and insight to bear on the needs of a very needy world.

We plan to follow up on the success of this year's conference and the growing interest in these rapidly developing topics with another Mapping the News conference in mid-September 2005. We invite you to participate as a speaker, exhibitor, or attendee. For more information as planning progresses, visit the Mapping the News Web site at www.aag.org/mapnews. Feel free to contact me (e-mail: drichardson@aag.org) with any questions, comments, or ideas.

-Doug Richardson

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