• Maps

Where are you?

This is a typical data map, which presents information via geographic locations

Where is the story?

A map can tell you.

One of the most common and useful graphic devices in today’s mass media is the map. Maps are quick and easy to use. They provide readers with important information that can be used to help explain events and put them in physical context. In addition, they help to educate a public that many have tagged as geographically illiterate.

Certain conventions should be followed in using maps. First and foremost, a map should always be proportional to the geographic area that it represents; that is, it should be “to scale.” Let’s say that a country is 2,000 miles long from north to south and 1,000 miles long from east to west. The longitude (north to south) to latitude (east to west) scale is 2 to 1. Any map that represents that area should have the north-south line twice the distance of the east-west line.

Another important convention of maps is that the northern part of the area represented is always at the top of the map. This northern orientation dates from ancient times and is one of the assumptions that most people make when they look at a map.

A third convention of maps is that they include a distance scale, usually somewhere close to the bottom of the map. Not every map needs a distance scale because sometimes such a scale is irrelevant. On those maps where the area is likely to be unfamiliar to the reader, distance scales are extremely helpful. A distance scale usually consists of two parts: a line that is marked off to indicate units of a distance on the map; and text that tells what the scale is, such as “1 inch = 5 miles.”

Many maps in newspapers or magazines appear with insets—smaller maps that show a larger area that includes the area shown in the map. For instance, a map of Great Britain might include an inset of Western Europe to show where or how large Great Britain is in relation to other countries.

The print media put maps to three basic uses with which you should be familiar:

Symbols. The shapes of many states and countries are well known and are excellent graphic devices. They are particularly useful when an article is divided up as a series of reports on different states or countries (or, on a more local level, counties). While such use does not require that these maps have a distance scale, they should follow the conventions of being proportionally scaled and having the north at the top.

Location. Using maps to indicate the location of events is what we think of as the most common and logical use of maps. Here, all of the conventions of map usage should come into consideration.

These maps may be enhanced by a number of devices. Cities, towns and other locations can be identified. A map may also include buildings or other sites that would help the reader get the point of the map. Hills, valleys, mountains, rivers, forests and other topographical factors can be included on a map with drawings or shadings.

Maps may serve as backgrounds for other information that journalists want to convey to their readers. For instance, to give readers a better sense of the story about a trip by the pope, a publication might include a map with text and arrows pointing to the different locations the pope will visit and the dates on his schedule.

Location maps may not always have to be of areas that we think of as geographic locations. For instance, the floor plan of a house or other building can be treated as a map if it helps readers understand something about an article. In the general sense, maps are a way of looking down on something and seeing it as a whole rather than seeing part of it from the limits of ground level. Such a bird’s eye view can be revealing and insightful.

Data. A data map places numerical data on geographic locations in a way that will produce relevant information about the data. Data maps can aid in our understanding of the data and the areas in which it occurs. Data maps also allow readers to view large amounts of information at a single sighting in an orderly and logical way.

Data maps take time and effort to produce, and they should be created with great care. Data maps that are not carefully thought out can allow viewers to reach superficial or incorrect conclusions. Creators of data maps should be particularly careful that the data they have is, in fact, related to geographic location rather than being distributed randomly.


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