Multimedia analysis: Top Secret America

It took reporters from The Washington Post two years to create the complex,  online multimedia series “Top Secret America” which compiles information about what the post calls a secret fourth branch of government created after 9/11.

This project was a huge undertaking and required a large magnitude of information to be collected which is impressive in and of itself. However, most impressive is the Post’s presentation of this information which, because of the nature of the internet, can be accessed at any place or time. This package also takes advantage of the storage capacity of the internet which makes it possible for the Post to store and present it in such a beautiful and sophisticated way.

The site allows users to explore information in a non-linear fashion. The opening page of the site presents several options for users to choose from, either from the navigation menu – which is always present – or through links. Perhaps what makes this piece of journalism so remarkable, besides the wealth of information gathered, is how each part of the series is interwoven into another part through links and information.

Links to other sections of content create a large network and can be found frequently throughout the package including in the opening video. During the opening video which gives an overview of the package, pop-up links appear which lead the users to relevant content as it’s mentioned in the video. The video is also quite compelling as it utilizes a mix of voiceover, interview, video footage as well as still images. Mixes of different media elements can also be found within the “Read the Stories” section which is split into four parts that span a 6 month period.

The “See the Map” page uses interactive, multimedia graphs and maps to display the information visually. After a brief video on the map page, users are presented with an interactive map with customizable search options as well as additional graphs which offer even more audience control.

Users are able to explore which portions of the package appeal to them. During the introduction video to the map section, I saw what appeared to be Mankato marked on the larger U.S. map. Naturally, any user would be curious about what organizations are harboring top-secret information near them. Because I, as the audience, was granted control I was able to easily research my own local interest in the information and discovered Mankato is home to a resident agency of the FBI.

The interactive “Explore Connections” info graphic is the standout of the entire package. The graph highlights the secret activity of 45 government organizations which is broken down into six different types of work: intelligence, military, homeland security, unconventional warfare, weapons technology, and support and administration. Each type of work is color coded and present on the graph of each organization’s column when that type is producing secret information. When users move their mouse over any particular organization’s area of the map, the full column is highlighted and additional information is present. The graph can also be sorted several different ways and when clicked users are taken to another circle graph which breaks the information down even further and more graphs are presented. There is also an option to view any type of work’s full profile, which lists all the companies and locations associated with that work as well as the number of employees and the estimated revenue. Each of the company names is a link which takes users even deeper into the site where a Google maps mash-up is present and pinpoints the company headquarters.

On every page of the package there are options for sharing information and user comments. Links to Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites promote community building through user participation. The package also has a Twitter hash tag so users can follow live updates and posts on the subject as well that read what other Twitter users are saying about the site.

“Top Secret America” is quite thorough and the information is effectively conveyed in a way that is easy to understand. The variety of media used to tell the story, along with the complex, yet easily navigated info graphics, create a under-friendly environment. It’s obvious that the Washington Post assembled this information in a very calculated way as the site users most if not all of the advantages available for online journalism.

If anything, it could be said that The Washington Post presents such a profound amount of information that some might find it overwhelming.  I also believe that the options for sharing the information on social media could have been more pronounced since social media could perhaps drive the most site traffic. Each symbol is quite small and could be missed by some users. Enlarging these elements would perfect this already incredible piece of online journalism.

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One thought on “Multimedia analysis: Top Secret America

  1. Ellen Mrja says:

    Outstanding analysis, Kelsey. +20/20 Isn’t this a remarkable bit of reporting?

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