Analyzing Washington Post’s Multimedia Project “Top Secret America”

Washington Post’s multimedia project “Top Secret America” examines the large buildup of the government’s national security following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The multimedia project was a combined effort of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest and journalist William Arkin both of the Washington Post. With the help of more than 20 other journalists, the 2-year investigation explores the large and complex world of national security in the United States through a series of articles, photo galleries, videos, maps, an online database and an interactive graphic.

In order to understand the effectiveness of the multimedia components in this piece, it is important to understand how the project utilizes each of the 8 advantages of online journalism outlined in James C. Foust’s book Online Journalism: Principles and Practices of News for the Web.

The audience specifically benefits because of 3 effective elements of online journalism. Audience control gives the users the power to look at anything and everything included in this huge multimedia package. Time and place access gives users the ability to access everything in the package at any place or time of the day. Finally, immediacy allows the journalists to update, change and correct anything in the piece almost instantly.

Four other advantages of online journalism specifically benefit from the tremendous capabilities the web adheres to projects over traditional media. Nonlinearity allows the news package to utilize no predefined linear order. Users can explore in any order. The project also benefits from the tremendous amount of information that can be stored and easily retrieved on the web. Unlimited space and multimedia capabilities provided by the web allows great depth within the package. The online database, map and interactive graphic specifically allow users to explore the extensive and complex world of Top Secret America.

Lastly, audience participation online provides users a great opportunity to be significantly involved in this news package. There is a submit button at the bottom of the page that allows users to contribute to the ongoing project, and social media allows users to share their ideas with the people directly involved in the project.

“Top Secret America” benefits not only because the package is presented online, but because it contains many multimedia components.

Videos are utilized in various ways throughout the package. One video introduces users to the project. Another video helps users understand how to effectively use the interactive graphic. Within the series of articles, videos explain specific items referenced in the article. The bottom of the page also provides a link to the trailer for a documentary piece by PBS’s Frontline that explores the subject as well.

There are five different photo galleries within this package. Each photo gallery explores different aspects discussed in these articles including the roles of private contractors, the locations of top-secret offices, a community’s counterterrorism activities and anti-deception technologies. These photo galleries effectively provide visual snapshots of Top Secret America.

Maps are also used in various places, but the most effective map in the package allows users to search by zip code or city to find domestic counterterrorism organizations in the user’s area and across the United States. This interactive map provides a detailed profile of local counterterrorism efforts in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 5 U.S. territories. Users can learn about federal, state and local organizations involved in the area, the work they do and when they began participating.

Another option for finding a detailed profile of counterterrorism efforts in the United States is to utilize the searchable database located at the top of the page. Using the database, users can search for top-secret work by government agencies, companies, places, types of work and by all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 5 U.S. territories. Each search locates the specific profile of that government agency, company, place, type of work or state. Profiles for government organizations and companies reveal the official website, a brief description, top-secret work statistics, types of work, latest headlines, a graphic and a google map all specific to the organization or company.

Finally, the most effective and memorable multimedia component is the interactive graphic. The graphic is located at the top of the page under the “explore connections” tab. This multimedia component allows users to discover the relationships between government organizations and the types of work being done in Top Secret America. Color coordinated buttons allow users to explore different kinds of top-secret work. Users can also arrange the graphic in three different categories. Overall, the graphic visually showcases the depth and complexity of Top Secret America.

Despite the successfulness of the multimedia components, without effectively linking these components and sharing this story through social media the news package would have been a lot less user-friendly. At the top of the page the user can always access the intro page, read the stories, see the map, explore the connections, find companies and search the data. There is also an index at the bottom of the page that links users to all the articles and photo galleries. In addition, at the top of the page and within each component in the news package, the user can easily share the story through Facebook, Twitter, Email, Yahoo Buzz, Delicious, Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit. Users can like Top Secret America’s Facebook page and follow them on Twitter and use their hashtag #topsecretamerica.

The only real problem I had with the package was it felt a little overwhelming. A lot of information and multimedia components were contained within the news package, and sometimes it was difficult to interpret all of the data contained within the package. I think the package would have most benefitted from a video, similar to the how to video for the interactive graphic, which explained not only how to use each multimedia component, but how to interpret the data contained within each component. Everything would feel a lot less confusing. Still, Dana Priest and William Arkin’s 2-year investigation piece is a comprehensive and visually stunning look into Top Secret America that is definitely worth the read.