Timelines: bringing interactivity to reporting

April 4, 2011

“A timeline is a useful — and helpful — type of information graphic, and fairly common in journalism,” Mindy McAdams

When creating packages for the Internet, we often become caught up in using a one size fits all formula of a written story by accompanied several photographs, a video, or maybe even a short sound clip. As reporters we need to remember that not every story is effectively conveyed in this manner, and explore the other formats for story telling. In her article, “Timelines in journalism: a closer look,” Mindy McAdams examines the way a timeline can be used for our articles.

Before using time-related formats in our writing, it is important for us to realize the difference between a timeline and a chronology. According to McAdams, a timeline shows actual spans of time, with proportional measurements for decades, years, days or hours, depending on the total time involved.

A chronology, however, “shows the momentum of a series of events” and is best conveyed in a list format. The Washington Post perfectly executed the chronological format in the following article about the Watergate Scandal: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/onpolitics/watergate/chronology.htm.

Now that you know the different time formats, it is important you understand when to use them. McAdams suggests that we answer these questions before drafting our timelines:

  1. Is this a story about hours, days, years or decades?
  2. Should equal periods of time be represented with equal space? (Example: 100 pixels equals one year.)
  3. Are parallel time periods required? (Example: While this was happening in India, this was happening in China.)
  4. Does it make sense to combine the timeline with a map or a line graph?
  5. Should photos or other images be added to the timeline to help tell the story?
  6. How much text is necessary to make the story understandable — and satisfying?

After you answer all these questions, it is important to decide how to convey your timeline. The most obvious way to present the information is with a line and events going from left to right. With online journalism, however, we do not have to stick to such a conventional method and we are free to explore more interactive formats. The Guardian did an excellent job with an interactive timeline in their article “Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests. Some tools that you can use to help you create an interactive timeline similar to The Guardian’s include Dipity and Simile.

After creating the timeline either through your own coding or through one of the aforementioned websites, and before uploading it to your website, you should answer the following questions:

  1. Will people like it?
  2. Is it helpful, easy to understand?
  3. Is it confusing?
  4. Hard to use?
  5. Does it add something that text alone would not convey?
  6. Does the graphic need to be a timeline — or would a regular slideshow (or map, or whatever) be equally effective?

If you answered yes to a majority of these questions then you are ready to upload your timeline to your website! Congratulations on your mastery of this simple yet extremely important story format!

To read McAdams full article, click here.

Entry Filed under: Individual Tech Blog Items. Posted in  Individual Tech Blog Items Tags: , , , .

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