Journalists as Cartographers

Ground Truthing: The use of a ground survey to confirm findings of aerial image or to calibrate quantitative aerial observations; validation and verification techniques used on the ground to support maps; walking the ground to see for oneself if what has been told is true; near-surface discoveries. ~From Terry Tempest Williams, Orion Magazine, MayJue 2003

The convergence of print, video, and audio online is just one function of a larger shift in the technology of our daily lives from analog to digital. Just glancing around my house there are a range of ways that digital technology has replaced analog: my watch, my stereo, my thermostat, my phone, my camera, etc… These changes are more than the simple march of progress. They represent a fundamental shift in our epistemology. Yochi Benkler has written that “Information, knowledge, and culture are central to human freedom and human development. How they are produced and exchanged in our society critically affects the way we see the state of the world as it is and might be; who decides these questions; and how we, as societies and polities, come to understand what can and ought to be done.” Changes in technology necessitate changes in how we respond to the world around us.

Whether you blame or celebrate the role of the Internet in journalism, it is impossible to deny how the web has changed – and is changing – the role of the journalist. News and information – and they way we consume it – has undergone a radical shift in just the last twenty years. We went from watching the evening newscast, to 24 hour cable news, to always-on internet news, to always-on and always-accessible mobile news on cell phones. With these shifts have come changes in pace and delivery, as well as the content and character of the news.

The amount of information we have access to is growing exponentially, and as it does we are increasingly looking for ways to better search, sort, process, understand and make use of it all. As the stream of information swells – threatening to spill over its banks – many people long for a new kind of authority to help navigate the flood. Clay Shirky has written that “one of the things up for grabs in the current news environment is the nature of authority.” Google has their search algorithm. People rely on their Twitter and Facebook networks to find news. Others have trusted listservs. Still others rely on the editors of news sites and newspapers. However, most agree, there is no perfect solution yet.

Journalists obviously have a unique opportunity here. They are well positioned to help aggregate, organize, analyze and clarify the vast amount of information around us. I’m not the first to suggest this kind of role – but I want try out a new metaphor that could help define what this role might look like and why it is so important.

As I noted above, the shift from analog to digital has transformed both everyday objects and people’s careers in an array of fields. Journalism is not the only profession that traffics in specialized information, obtained through rigorous investigation, traditionally printed on paper and distributed to consumers. The internet and digital technology has revolutionized cartography perhaps more than any other industry. When was the last time you bought an atlas?

However, an interesting thing happened as map making shifted to satellite imagery and geographical informational systems (GIS) – cartographers found they needed some sort of verification. “Ground truthing” is the practice of getting out and walking the land to confirm the information and images received through new technologies.

Now more than ever we need journalists to survey the information landscape and help ground our understanding of the issues facing our society. This doesn’t mean we need to bow our heads to the myth of objectivity and place journalists up on a pedestal, bestowing on them some unearned credibility and authority. But it does mean that we need a new kind of journalist who can work with communities and readers to help collaborate around the act of making meaning, and defining the terms of the debate.

At a recent conference on the future of local and regional news Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism outlined what he saw as the eight roles of journalists in the future. He said we need the press to: 1. authenticate the news, 2. be a sense-maker, 3. be a watchdog, 4. bear witness, 5. be a forum, 6. be a smart aggregator, 7. empower the audience and 8. be a role model.

In my mind, the act of ground truthing is made up of some combination of numbers 1, 2 and 6. We increasingly need journalists to help sort the facts from the fiction – doing the fact checking and holding leaders and public figures accountable for the truth. We need them to pull together the diverse threads of information, making connections, and help make something larger than the sum of its parts. And finally, we need help finding the best of what others are doing online. We need journalists who can bring context to their work by leveraging the best of other people’s work.

In the end, our communities need quality news and information to help us find our way. As such, we need journalists who can be the cartographers of this digital age.


  1. Ground truthing: what an incredible concept for writers. Thank you.

  2. Keri Gibbs says:

    As we used to say when cartography first went digital, “garbage in, garbage out”. You do need to verify the facts.

    Whether journalism is a drought or flood is up to the journalist.

  3. Josh says:

    Interesting post on MediaShift:
    Democratizing the Geography of Information

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