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Friday, December 2, 2011
Digital Media Toolbox

Keep track of multiple players with free tools

By Jennifer Peebles

Ever write a story about a bunch of folks doing something, and it seems like you — and the reader — need a scorecard to keep everyone straight?

Sometimes scorecards or diagrams aren’t such a bad idea. Say you're a cops or courts reporter and you're trying to explain to people the inner workings of a drug cartel. Or you're a political reporter trying to show the movement of money through PACs and 527 groups to sway an election or the vote on a certain piece of legislation.

There are a lot of complicated news stories that can be aided by visuals showing the players and how they’re connected to one another. There are a lot of names for those graphics, but I’ll call them "influence charts” or “social network diagrams.”

You can invest in super-complicated software that will make these charts for you — if you've got a few thousand bucks to spare (ha!) — or you can make them yourself with some free or fairly inexpensive tools.

PLAN IT

• Identify who, or what entities, need to be on the chart and what can be left out. The entire fraud case you're reporting on may fill up 19 storage boxes in the court clerk's office and involve 85 named co-defendants, but unless your readers have computer monitors the size of the Jumbotron at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, they're not going to be able to see all that anyhow. Just like in writing your story, you must use your journalistic judgment to boil it down for the reader. Pick out the few key players who are central, focus on them and leave out the rest.

• The connections between people can either be about the flow of one thing (money, namely, but it could be illegal drugs, human trafficking victims, black-market uranium or anything else) from one entity to another, or they can be about relationships: familial relationships, involvement or membership in the same organization, being present at the same meeting, and the like.

• Just like in picking out the central players, you must pick out the central connections, or sum up those connections, and let the rest go. You won't have room to show every individual $100 transaction in a fraud case that involves $50 million.

Making your chart

The easiest way to make a simple chart is using any graphics program that will allow you to import photos of the few key players and draw a few simple lines or arrows to connect them. Throw in some text here and there to add cutlines to the pictures and descriptions of the connections, and you're done.

I tend to use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, but there are low-cost and no-cost alternatives to these such as GIMP. Check the links for this Toolbox piece at delicious.com/jlpeebles/influencecharts to see more options.

But you can also create the charts online with no additional software — and yes, it’s free — using sites like LucidChart, which works totally through your browser and lets you embed the resulting graphic. And Google Fusion Tables, another free tool, lets you create organization charts that you can sometimes repurpose.

If there are a large number of players and connections, and you’re willing to accept a challenge, you can also use more complicated software built to keep track of large numbers of people and their relationships. Such tools are for something called social network analysis, a form of sociology research now being used by law enforcement investigators, military intelligence analysts and journalists.

Some low-cost/no-cost social network analysis software (in keeping with the social science origins of these programs, get ready for people on your chart to be called “nodes”):

• I haven’t fooled with UciNet in a few years now, so I’m probably unqualified to speak about any recent revisions to it, but when I used it, it was like pulling teeth to understand it.

• NodeXL is a free add-on to Microsoft Excel. I’ve never used it, but I’ve seen several people on the NICAR-L listserv say they have.

• Gephi is free and open-source. I’ve only fooled with it a little bit, but it looks cool, though it looks like the learning curve might be steep from something like LucidChart.

If you want to learn more, the group Investigative Reporters and Editors has a webpage devoted to social network analysis and some great tipsheets available to IRE members. Find those links and more at delicious.com/jlpeebles/influencecharts.

Jennifer Peebles is chairwoman of the SPJ Digital Media Committee and a deputy editor at Texas Watchdog in Houston. Contact her at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @jpeebles.

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