If you’re the nautical sort, you probably interpret the news as a flow. If you hunt and peck on the typewriter, your news feed might resemble a pointillistic painting. But if you love to break ideas down into their sequential components, keep your socks folded and sorted by color in a dresser, compose everything you write with an outliner and consider a pair of tweezers a blunt instrument, then you probably view the news through the schematic eyes of Hilary Sargent, the creative force behind the ChartGirl website.
Since November, Sargent has been sorting and reordering the chaotic sewer of breaking news into lucid and logical text-and-graphics charts. When the top story was General David Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell, Sargent straighten the “endless story angles” with an annotated chart depicting the major players in the scandal ‑ from Jill Kelley to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), fromHarvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa ‑ and plotting the salient interconnections. Better than a New York Times write-through of all known facts about the scandal, ChartGirl collected the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns in concise and puckish fashion. (Connecting Broadwell with Michelle Obama with a line, Sargent asked, “Who has better arms?”)
In early December, with John McAfee on the lam, Sargent extracted from the event the three dozen most important institutions, individuals and plot elements (e.g., a tampon, four poisoned dogs, Vice magazine, “bath salts”) and arranged them like wheel spokes around a McAfee head shot to bring coherence to the tumult. Later that month, Sargent applied her news-mapping skills to the awfulness of the Westboro Baptist Church and to Donald Trump‘s feuds with such celebrities as Rihanna, Carrie Prejean, Rosie O’Donnell, Al Neuharth and Stephen Colbert. Since then, she’s diagrammed the news behind the Bill Ackman vs. Carl Icahn battle, the highlights of the Gardner Museum heist, and, last week, press corps Boston Marathon bombings hits and misses.
If you see the world through the eyes of a press critic ‑ and I pity you if you do ‑ Sargent’s work sometimes reads like A.J. Liebling turned graphics freak. In this week’s “Covering the Coverage,” which provides further assessment of the media’s treatment of the Boston story, she pours a whole colony of fire ants on the press corps. But in an interview, Sargent cites artist Mark Lombardi, whose “Narrative Structures” gave visual form to conspiracies, political scandals and financial crimes, as primary inspiration. Sargent says she also admires Edward Tufte‘s work and recently took his seminar, but adds this disclaimer: “My charts break so many Ed Tufte rules that I think it would be unfair to him to say he’s an influence.”
Although Sargent dabbled in journalism at the turn of the century, working at the Boston Globe and completing an internship at the Wall Street Journal, she has worked for the past decade as a researcher and consultant in Washington and New York. In 2006, while working for the Senate Majority Project, a 527 group, she constructed her first chart to organize information about holdings in the portfolio of then-Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Later, while working for a private investigative firm in New York, she made numerous charts to describe money laundering operations and international asset tracing.