Last May, when the U.S. was approaching 100,000 deaths due to Covid-19, the New York Times printed the name of every person on their front page. It was a stark and unsettling visualization of the toll of the catastrophe.
This week, the U.S. passed 500,000 deaths and the Times once again sought to visualize something so incomprehensible, this time using dots as stand-ins for the names. The difference between the two front pages is its own kind of infographic, the shift from 100,000 names that filled up the entire page to indistinguishable points in a broad column down the middle.
The graphic this week is more informative, if that’s what we’re looking for, showing the ebbs and flows, the surges of the virus, and how it’s compounded in growth. It’s also too many, Francis Gagnon writes:
This graph is confronting us with the limitations of data visualization to convey tragedies.
Tragedies like COVID-19 deaths happen at the individual level. One death is a person who did their 2nd grade homework, helped their brother out of a ditch, broke up on New Year’s Eve, lied to their kids and then apologized. To their relatives, friends and coworkers, they are a full person. To a chart, they are a dot.
Gagnon is right, this really does hit the limits of what can, or maybe even should be visualized. Each dot is a person, a life, and there it is next to headlines about tennis and confirmation hearings. It’s effective at conveying information but fails to fully account for what’s ultimately missing — those 500,000 souls.
National Geographic used comparisons, but it felt almost glib to know the entire city of Atlanta or every U.S. Postal worker would be gone today. Reuters provided some of the emotional heft that was missing from the cold numeracy, overlaying actual lives among the dots.
At the start of my journalism career, I got tapped to build a memorial project for the first remembrance of the September 11 terrorist attack. It included a lot of archival coverage, bits that we’d never published before, profiles of victims, analysis of how much everything changed. It was a terribly emotional project to work on, less than a year after the world shifted irrevocably, with the usual deadline pressures — that’s very much the territory of working in news. We included a “database” of people, really it was just a CSV file of names of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed. I’d often go through them late at night and inevitably end up crying at my desk, alone in the basement of a tower in Chicago.