Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beacon No. 101: The Wrong Tool Now


As the Washington Post Company ages, its fetish for cute icons is accelerating.

If you never could get enough of Newsweek’s stupefying Conventional Wisdom feature, check out the Post’s Global Power Barometer, which purports to graphically track the question, "Which nations, ideologies and/or movements are most powerful (most successful) in moving global opinion and events in directions they desire?"

Created by Aspen, Colo.-based Denver Research Group, the GPB shows how the U.S., China, Israel, Iran, Islamists and North Korea are being viewed by English-language media, with about a one-day delay, according to Denver’s backgrounder.

The Post flaks the GPB as a way to “watch world power shift in real time,” a far cry from Denver Research Group’s calmer “very reasonable first glimpse at how the world is reacting to an event or issue.” In fact, Denver’s own skepticism about the GPB makes clear that it’s to be considered a starting point, not an end product:

... These types of measures can only be considered an educated guess. Humans and human events are complex; models of the extraordinary interactions of global events make weather models look simple (and accurate). So, the reader is urged not to treat the GPB icons as gospel. That said, the charts can provide a very reasonable first glimpse at how the world is reacting to an event or issue. By letting the GPB provide a general direction, the reader using his or her own sources and concepts can speed analysis and hopefully come up with educated conclusions more quickly and efficiently.

Denver’s tool is a nice try and I hope they are well compensated by the Post; the exposure on washingtonpost.com alone is priceless. But I would be surprised if many of the Post’s readers use the GPB for this intended purpose. I’d guess that most will simply look at the GPB as a box score or price quote—Ford up 1.28 after hours, Celtics win back-to-back on the road, Islamists fall in light shelling—and return to other tasks.

The GPB is precisely what public-diplomacy and soft-power pros do not need: a graphic (an arrow!) rather than a tool that allows more-nuanced interpretations of those same events.

And beyond any questions of accuracy or usefulness to the public at large, the GPB threatens to become the needle that U.S. and other countries’ propaganda programs are intended to move, the benchmark against which success or failure—and funding—are measured.

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