Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Don't shoot the artists, they draw a pretty good picture
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The Independent Online

Every picture is worth a thousand words. Or is it? Not according to Dr Peter Rudd from Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight. "I generally like your newspaper's graphics," he writes. (I should hope so, Mr Rudd. They were described the other day by one of the world's leading designers as "magnificently understated, putting every other national newspaper to shame"). But Dr Rudd is not happy about last week's paper. "Sometimes there is too little information, sometimes too much. And sometimes the material in the graphic is at odds with what appears in the article. In your piece on stillbirths on pages 8 and 9, the text refers to "10 stillbirths every day in Britain" but the graphic talks about "10 stillbirths every day in England and Wales". Does this mean that there are no stillbirths in Scotland? Unlikely, but you don't say. The opposite is true of the graphic on page 20, showing the rise in illegal immigration from Mexico to the USA. I might be interested in the "Yuma sector" or the "Tucson sector" or "Pima county" if I were planning a Mexican holiday, but they are not mentioned in the text and don't seem relevant. A much simpler graphic would have done the job better."

You've a keen eye, Dr Rudd. But don't shoot the artist. In the stillbirths article, the graphic is right but the text is wrong. When referring to health statistics, journalists often refer to Britain or the UK when they mean England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own health services. Sometimes this may not matter, since broad measures of health are often the same, but on a number of counts Scotland differs significantly. A phone call to the General Register Office for Scotland answers the question. In 2005, the latest year for which there are figures available, there were 292 stillbirths in Scotland, a rate of 5.3 per thousand – less than one a day, but still significant.

As for the Mexico graphic, I must disagree. The general rule about newspaper infographics is the more information the better, so long as the result is clear and uncluttered. I once had the privilege of working with the late Peter Sullivan, widely regarded as the "father" of infographics, who did his best work for 'The Sunday Times' in the 1970s. (The Peter Sullivan Award is now the Pulitzer Prize of the international graphics field.) He would always say that the job of the graphic was not to simplify or just to look pretty, but that, on the contrary, it should aim to show facts that might not otherwise be told – and never to be afraid to add information that isn't in the story. As a result, Sullivan would often be ahead of the pack with his notebook at the scene of big news events. It wasn't that he didn't trust most reporters, he just knew he was better than them.

A footnote to last week's column

Whatever happened to "make love, not war"? I've had a furious tirade of responses to my comments on cannabis and hippies. According to one I have views "worse than George Bush". (Quite an achievement.) But I leave you with this, from Alvar Sorensen in London: "Dear Michael, Please print this... I'm middle-aged, a lifetime dope smoker and I have no doubt it's affected my mental health. Just tell your readers: don't."

Email: readerseditor@independent.co.uk

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