August 9, 2006

Political Maps


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Earlier this week, the AP began distributing this “before” and “after” set of bomb damage in Beirut.

It’s one thing to consider the asymmetrical nature of warfare, or the wrenching destruction of infrastructure and human lives.  My focus here, however, is to consider the framing of “bombing data” by the media, highlighting how that presentation implies its own political, perceptual and editorial implications.

In a previous post, a BAGreader made the following comment:

If you search in the net – and there is a lot to find – you will see that Israel is not “bombing benevolently.” Aerial pictures show clearly that just very few blocks in the Hisbollah main residential area have been destroyed (just 1% of Beirut)….  It is part of the Hisbollah propaganda to talk of “area bombing”. If you compare the aerial pictures of German cities in ’44 or ’45 as shown in with the aerial pictures of Lebanon of today you might get an impression [of the] difference.

I can’t speak for the 1% statistic, or whether Hezbollah has accused Israel of area bombing.  I do have a number of questions about these visuals, however.

First, what was the purpose of “desaturating” the “after” shot?  Besides depriving the viewer the opportunity of an apples-to-apples comparison, removing the color overlays its own lifeless, deathly quality onto the information.  (Typical associations would include black-and-white WWII area bombing photos.)


Second, the monochromatic effect “chalkens” the picture, making it hard to decipher how much “undermining” comes from the bombing as opposed to the effect of the presentation.  Notice, for example, how hard it is to tell if the building with the red roof in the lower left of this pic — and especially, the adjacent red-roofed building inside the bounded area — still exist.  Because things start to blend together, it’s particularly difficult to register structures still intact inside or adjacent to a bombing footprint.

A third problem is that the two images are not equivalently scaled.  The shot on the right gives a tighter view of this rectangular neighborhood bound by the four roads.  The shot on the right captures less width, instead offering more area north-to-south.  (You can determine this by looking at the greater width of the east-west road at the bottom of the shot, and how much more neighborhood is visible below.  By focusing on an area that is more “bounded,” the tendency — from a cognitive standpoint — is to extrapolate this degree of damage to the adjacent segments and, potentially, to the city as a whole.

… Which brings up another problem with the image.  Lacking additional context, the viewer can’t help but assume this locale was randomly selected.


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This impression disappears immediately, however, if you see the multimedia version the NYT put up.  (That is, if you take the time to click for the labels.)  With the added info, it’s now no coincidence two different media outlets feature this same real estate.  What is referred to by the AP caption as simply an “area of Beirut, Lebanon” is now identifiable as the home base and central hub of Hezbollah.

To find the Multimedia piece, go to the Middle East page and look for the “Multimedia” section with the map thumbnail in the 3rd column.

(image 1: AP Photo/GeoEye.  July 12, 2006 and July 31, 2006. Via YahooNews.  image 2: NYT/GeoEye.  July 12, 2006 and July 31, 2006.

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Michael Shaw
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