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What Cartography Taught Me about Science Writing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Just like in journalism, the first thing one learns in a cartography class is that good maps tell stories. This semester, I’m taking cartography and journalism simultaneously, and I’ve realized that the constructions I’ve learned for how to think about making maps actually make me a better writer.

In cartography, they teach that maps gain their power through the process of abstraction. Abstraction is the process through which a geographic reality is turned into a representation, the map. In the process of making a map, cartographers have to decide what information to include and what to exclude, and this process creates an abstraction of reality that has more power and more functionality then the entire reality itself.

Think about if you made a perfect map. To map everything in the state of Wisconsin, the map would have to be the size of the state of Wisconsin. Then it wouldn’t be very useful. So, instead, we distill down to the features that are relevant to the story that your map aims to tell. If you want to tell someone how to travel across Wisconsin, you include the major towns and roads that people will need to navigate.

However, the power of maps comes at a cost: when you distill the information, you introduce uncertainty. Maps, by definition, are not 100 percent accurate. Only reality is 100 percent accurate.

Cartographers call the process of deciding what to exclude from your map generalization. In Wisconsin, if you want to map state parks, you probably want to include lakes. If you are mapping dairy farms, you probably don’t need lakes. This process of meaningfully removing detail is critical because you know that if you try to include too much, you’ll crowd the map and no one will understand anything.

Science journalism is like that too. I’m writing my first long feature story, 2,500 words on a topic I’m passionate about – post-wildfire restoration in an ecosystem I love, the Mojave desert. I want to include everything, tell the full story, every interesting research experiment, every beautiful native shrub, every scorched mountain range, every scientist’s heartfelt description of why they love the landscape. But I’ve discovered that when I try, I lose the story, and then, I will lose the readers (that I hope to have). I need to make generalization decisions.

In journalism, we seem to have a continual debate about how best to navigate the fact that every story is subject to the lens of its writer. Bias is inherent in maps, just like in journalism, because of the conscious decisions made on how to design the story or the map, how to frame and present the information.

When you take spatial information from a round planet and try to present it on a flat paper or screen, you can’t preserve the geography perfectly. Size and shapes can become distorted, more so in maps with a larger view of the world. A map of Wisconsin is small enough to keep the distortion down. Many global maps, on the other hand, result in a huge Greenland and a small African continent, because of how the map was designed to focus on the European and US mid-northern latitudes.

Although every method of presenting geography requires some distortion, each method, called a projection, has explicit pros and cons. On every map, its designer will include a mention of how the map was projected, to inform the viewers how the geography has been distorted, and what has been preserved.

As a journalist, I’m envious of projections. It would be so handy to be able to tell readers, in a few simple words, here’s how I’ve framed this story for you, to quickly take implicit bias and make it explicit, and move on to the story.

But through my rose-colored glasses, I’m simplifying cartography. Designing maps requires so many more decisions than just projection, and the motivations of the cartographer can affect each step, just like journalism.

Maps make for powerful storytelling, when they are designed well. The constraints of telling a complete story in one image create an environment when every decision counts. But even though I have 2500 words to tell my story, I’ve realized that thinking like a cartographer, making careful design decisions, made it stronger.

Kate Prengaman About the Author: Kate Prengaman is a former botanist and a current science writing graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. She loves talking to interesting people and telling good stories. She’s taking cartography and data visualization classes in addition to her journalism degree to understand how to tell visual stories as well. Follow on Twitter @kprengaman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. Paleoecologist 10:34 am 05/7/2012

    I love this post! I saw a recent talk (at UW-Madison Geography, in fact!) by Tom Koch on disease mapping that was all about how cartographers need to be accountable to the choices they make. It got me thinking that anyone who works with data of any kind really needs to have a background in ethics, as well.

    Link to this

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