Monday, April 12, 2010

Map Flap

Okay. I really want to save the Los Angeles Times. I really do. Look, I have even tried to give them some polite suggestions for how they could save themselves. As much as I love having a wealth of material to blog about when it comes to the Los Angeles Times and its profound stupidity about Internet journalism, I really do think my hometown should have a decent newspaper, and I care about the fourth estate in the digital age.

But when it comes to "interactive content" I can't help but think that the LA Times is hopeless, truly hopeless. The most recent example I can point to is the paper's "Homicide Report," which takes the form of an interactive map, in which readers can browse photos of murder victims, check out the history of murder near their zip code, or activate pinpointed spots of crime scenes on the map. For really morbid crime enthusiasts, you can also browse by "age, gender, cause, day of the week, jurisdiction, neighborhood, race/ethnicity, circumstance or crime scene."

The LA Times has had some prior history with map-based initiatives. Mapping LA Neighborhoods became a laughingstock among geographers and cartographers. They also published a map of local pot dispensaries called -- I kid you not -- "Where's the weed?," which may have been in questionable taste. After criticizing the accuracy of the LAPD's crime map, the newspaper launched a crime map of their own.

But once you drill down into the information, you can see how truly terrible their homicide map is. Beyond its lowest common denominator ghoulishness, it indicates an utter misunderstanding of either interactivity or user-generated content. It makes sexual predator maps look good by comparison. Let's click on one of the photos in the gallery of death -- one of Ryan Gonzalez -- to see some of its weaknesses.

The reader is invited to tweet the posting on Twitter or share it on Facebook, because really that's what everyone wants to do with a murder story. Right? The citizen policing/neighborhood watch/social surveillance/public shaming aspect of the site gets even more complicated when you look down the page to where the reader is encouraged to "share a memory" about the deceased, who in this case was killed after intervening in a law enforcement officer's messy dispute, one which would seem to invite some actual investigative journalism by the paper that is sadly lacking.

Of course, asking for reader comments on a crime story is often asking for trouble, whether it is a rape case or a knife fight. All kinds of agendas come into play in which moderating public comment can be ethically tricky. In this case, however, the reader asks a pithy question that one would have hoped that the writer would have asked, even if the tone has less of the somber decorum that characterizes most online memorials that developed out of "memory gardens" and other forms of remembrance in cyberspace.

Wait, so he was holding a gun, grabbing the marshal AND punching him at the same time? Amazing he could do those three things at once, yet not get one round off before the marshal draws, aims AND fires a half dozen times. Nice investigation by both the LAPD and the LA Times.

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