Saturday, 16 July 2016

Chip paper silly season

It's likely most will have already forgotten that a few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a short article on Null Island. After all, today's news is tomorrows fish n' chip wrapping.

A couple of months ago a journalist contacted me wanting to chat about this mythical place he'd heard of. I agreed. It was supposed to be background for the piece he was writing but I made it clear I was not qualified to be regarded in any way as an expert or even protagonist for the rise of the Republic of Null Island. We spent well over an hour chatting about basics of cartography, maps and such like. We got into coordinate systems, datums, map projections and so on.

I never got to see a draft of the article but there it was, front page of the Wall Street Journal. In some ways it was a nice piece for a general audience but tucked away was this fantastic quote I'd apparently made: “There is a lot of terrible-terrible-terrible math involved,”. Did I say that?

To be honest I can't recall but the conversation was about the need for different local coordinate systems and because the earth was a geoid (I never said lumpy egg-shape) that involved maths to make flat maps. I am liable to the odd quip but I can't recall saying 'terrible' three times. Maybe I did, but the point I was making was that making maps involves maths and it can get rather complicated whereas the article juxtaposed that alleged quote with something unrelated to what we'd discussed.

By the way, that's maths with an 's' because I speak English English, not American English. I entirely understand the s being dropped as it's a U.S. publication but it did cause amusement among a good number of my geo-pals.

The paragraph then went on to label me a 'Senior Cartographer'. Umm - nope. No such job title at the place I work. The full title of my employer was written out (despite it hardly ever being used these days to my knowledge) and then another alleged quote was appended: “Every part of the planet differs from every other part and that is why we have all these different maps.”

Well...no shit Sherlock! Again, I was actually referring to different coordinate systems as context for that but clearly that was deemed irrelevant.

So what's the problem? Ultimately it's just a media piece. My grand contribution boiled down to two pretty pathetic alleged quotes in an otherwise decent piece.

The bigger problem lies in the fact that so many journalists these days seem hell bent on taking information they gather from numerous sources (often Wikipedia, organisation web sites and LinkedIn) and just pasting it together in a way that they think makes sense. Context is lost. quotes appear uninformed and vapid. And in only a few lines the article managed to make me sound daft, give me a different job, include my employer's details (despite this having nothing to do with my employer) and dumb down the conversation we had to a banal au jus. This has consequences. I get a good ribbing and some eyebrows are raised. For the reader, they take away something only half-formed and that can then propagate. I guess this has always been the case with news media. It's not the first time I've been involved in a piece that ended up less than impressive.

Thankfully I did urge the guy to contact Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso which he obviously did and it can't be a bad thing that he and others get recognition.

And just as I thought things had died down someone on social media posted a link to the article clearly suggesting that I had said Null Island was "a place for people who can't use maps". I never said that. Neither did the article.

Lightweight reportage followed by Chinese whispers (that's the 'telephone game' for U.S. readers).

Silly season has arrived. Anyone fancy a chip?


1 comment:

  1. I did not have a great time with WSJ, either, for a different story. The reporter outright tried to feed me quotes, and when I wouldn't say them, she pleaded that I was killing her story. Basically, she wanted me to support the narrative that Google had driven all the other mappers out of business.

    ReplyDelete