Analysis of Washington Post’s ‘Top Secret America’

For two years, more than 20 Washington Post journalists investigated the enormous national security buildup and expansion in the United States after the 9/11/01 attacks. The project is known as “Top Secret America.”

The articles published in this series as well as an online database report and illustrate the extent and intricacy of the government’s national security and intelligence system through interactive maps, videos, photo galleries, and other graphics.

With the extensive and detailed coverage of 45 major government agencies and lists of 1000s of private companies they employ, the internet is best medium to facilitate this news package.

Here are some advantages of the Internet that the Washington Post has utilized in their story package for “Top Secret America”:

Audience Control
The audience, or rather users, are capable of choosing particular information they want and when they want it. This advantage allows users to be actively engaged in seeking and using information.

Time and Place Access
The news package offers unparalleled opportunities to reach out to its audience across time and space. The story package utilizes social media network sites like Facebook and Twitter, live Q&A on Washington Post’s Conversation, and a “Top Secret America” blog that audience members can subscribe to its RSS feeds.

Nonlinearity
Supposing users will read the methodology and credits as well as view the “Intro” and “Need Help” videos to further understand the interactive maps and story, this news packages allows individual users to experience information without a specified linear order.

Storage and Retrieval
The Washington Post favors the Internets ability to store an extensive amount of information and making that information readily available. They compiled 100s and 1000s of public records of government organizations and private sector companies into an online database with links to retrieve desired information with one click. The news package also links users to latest related stories around the web and an article index of published stories on “Top Secret America.”

Unlimited Space
The Internets unlimited space for information is key for this news package. The Washington post instead, focuses on making the vast information less complex without spatial and temporal restrictions.

Immediacy
The Washington Post can publish, update, or correct information almost instantaneously online and made available to its audience immediately.

Multimedia Capability
“Top Secret America” presents several types of media on the Internet. Included in this package are published articles with supported media such as photo galleries, multimedia galleries, videos, audio, interactive maps and graphics, and other graphics.

Audience Participation
This story package exploits many approaches to encourage audience involvement. The main infographic and map exploring the connections between government organizations and the various categories of work being done is interactive. As noted in “Time and Place Access,” users can call to Twitter and Facebook for commentary and call to action. Also incorporated in package, is a live Q&A section, as well as an opportunity for users to contribute by submitting information. These features provide the sense that the Washington Post listens to its audience.


Media Elements in “Top Secret America”

“Top Secret America” website package combines several forms of media content in one place. Videos in the package are effective in introducing the lead, breaking down the information, and guiding users through the interactive map and graphics. The information and interactive graphics are too complex to grasp without them, making them an even more valuable asset to the online story package.

The interactive “umbrella” graphic is a unique approach to organizing and consolidating the vast data to help tell the story. The 45 government organizations that make up “Top Secret America” is at the core of the graphic. The main view of the graphic shows which activities they are involved in. The categories of activities are represented by colors; for example, red represents intelligence activities and orange represents military activities. On the left of the side of the graphic are buttons in which the user can determine how he or she wants to sort government organizations by.

Above the graphic are the color-coded tabs that represent the activities and users are able to explore different kinds of top secret work. The interactivity allows for users to hover over activities or organizations with mouse to read supporting information without clicking on every cell. If user does however, want to click on a particular cell, they will be shown a company profile, number of top-secret work locations, rank for number of companies, and a circle graph which illustrates the relationship between government organizations and the types of work being done in “Top Secret America.”

I think this interactive graphic is the most effective and memorable in consolidating the most information and illustrating the links between major organizations and top secret activities. It is well-designed, uncluttered, and interactive.

The Washington Post also incorporates a Google Map for users to explore and see locations of all the agencies and organizations that engage in top secret. Users can click on each location to find information on counter-terrorism activities and organizations in that area. On the left side of the map are other options for the user to view data. For example, a user has the option to view only pre-9/11 or post-9/11 locations of counter-terrorism work. The map helps specify the locations but the interactivity is frustrating because it is difficult to control zoom specifications.

There are four parts to Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” investigation. Each part includes a text-based story, photo galleries and/or video and multimedia galleries. These photo and multimedia galleries are more informational than graphic, emotional, or intimate, since they provide “who, what, where, when” information.


To summarize, “Top Secret America” news package includes maps and graphics showing which areas are home to parts of the U.S. Intelligence community, as well as charts that detail which organizations are engaged in various categories of top-secret work. Essentially, these media elements reveal who does what and where.

If I could add or improve anything to this story, it would have been to encourage users to view videos first before exploring the interactive maps and graphics. The points of data in interactive elements are too difficult to navigate through without an accompanied video or text to help tell the story.

–Mel Bishop

Poynter’s NewsU ‘Language of the Image’ Course

This morning I took “Language of the Image”, a free online course offered by Poynter. I had no idea Poynter offered free online courses and the experience was gratifying. Since I am pursuing both journalism and graphic design, I believed the Language of the Image course was relevant to my interests.

The course begins with classifying photos into 3 categories:

Informational: Informational photos simply identify a person, place, or event. These photos should only retain an identification value, thus neglecting story-telling qualities.

Passive: Passive photos show people in situations in which their main purpose is to have their picture taken for the newspaper. It is all that is attainable when the event is no longer taking place, and to such a degree, the photographer is accountable for making the best possible environmental portrait.

Active: Active photos show real people engaged in real events in real time. They are far more engaging and favored than shooting portraits after the matter. These photos allow photographers to produce images that inform readers about their community and the world in a way that informs, inspires, concerns, and evokes exacting emotions. It is the photojournalists’ responsibility to go beyond the surface facts and capture the essence of a situation or personality.

Next, the course identifies 14 single elements in photos that can convey the fullest, most accurate sense of the situations being photographed. The elements implicated are:

  • Graphic
  • Quality of Light
  • Emotion
  • Juxtaposition
  • Mood
  • Sense of Place
  • Point of Entry
  • Impact
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Perspective
  • Surprise
  • Layering
  • Moment
  • Personality Portrait

Most images utilize more than one of these photographic elements above to enhance their story-telling capabilities as well as several different combinations of elements that can make for a more effective image. Poynter provides several images throughout the course to attest to this.


Examples of identifying photographic elements for online story

The photo is from an article from USA Today about the snowstorm that hit Flagstaff, Ariz. today. The supporting photo is active and embodies elements of surprise, the rule of thirds, moment, and layering.

This photo is from an article from the New York Times about New York Mets owners, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, agreement to settle a federal lawsuit against them fir $162 million. This photo shows the two owners speaking with reporters outside the federal court. The photo is informational since it only identifies the owners of the New York Mets with meager identification in the background of the steps outside the federal court in New York.


What I will take from Poynter’s “Language of the Image” online course is to integrate several elements into producing images and experiment with different approaches (i.e. different combinations of photographic elements) to convey the most accurate visual interpretation of the story.

While not all of Poynter’s online courses are free, here are other courses that are: