How cartographers sometimes make decisions instead of journalists

A few viewers and readers contacted me concerning a map of Israel that was recently used by VRT NWS. “Have the Golan Heights suddenly become a part of the state of Israel?” they asked.

The Golan Heights were originally a part of Syria, but Israel conquered the area during the Six Day War in 1967. Israel annexed the Heights and founded several colonies. President of the United States Donald Trump recently recognized the annexation. But that doesn’t mean that Europe, and Belgium in particular, has followed this decision.

VRT NWS would like to continue to indicate that the Golan Heights are generally not recognized as a part of the modern state of Israel. But apparently cartographers and software sometimes make decisions in place of the editors. Moreover, graphic desingers sometimes lack the alertness or the necessary knowledge to notice those details.

In TV news and on the website

On March 30, two maps that considered the Golan Heights as Israeli territory were published: one during TV news and one on the website. Those maps had the Gaza Strip in the south as the main focus, since the news covered the situation there. However, a bulge in the north which indicated the Golan Heights as an obvious part of Israeli territory was visible. The Flemish public is not used to seeing such maps. And some of the more alert members of the public reacted.

The map on the website was created by a software tool from a data supplier. The maps provided by that supplier are based on open source data from “OpenStreetMap”.  Open source means that everyone can contribute to making maps. Maps from OpenStreetMap are created by thousands of volunteers who map their own neighborhoods and pass on these data. The maps, however, only consider the situation on the ground. Political sensitivities and the status of the region in international law are not taken into account.

When I contacted OpenStreetMap, I got a very friendly reply from Joost Schouppe, Belgian member of the board of OpenStreetMap.

“Our maps are mainly made by volunteers who map what they see on the ground. The situation on the terrain is the benchmark of discussions between our volunteers. That is why we usually stick to what ordinary people themselves can determine in the field. We even apply this to national borders. There are many border conflicts in the world. Our general rule is that we simply map who controls which area. If you drive to Crimea, it is more important to know that you can expect a difficult checkpoint, than to know that it is still officially Ukrainian territory.”

It’s what you consider important.

Well, it’s what you think is important, of course. Not everyone uses a map to drive to Crimea. Apart from practical use, maps also inform people about the world they live in. That doesn’t change the fact that OpenStreetMap has made an exception for Crimea. The area is indicated as being contested. So why not do the same for the Golan Heights?

Joost Schouppe points out that the Crimea issue confronted OpenStreetMap with border changes in reality for the first time. That is why the map of Crimea was frozen. OpenStreetMap now shows Crimea in such a way that it can belong both to Russia and Ukraine. Such things must remain an exception, says Joost Schouppe. “Our viewpoint is that an exception is merely an exception, and not a new rule”.

Intense discussions

Joost Schouppe generously gave me a peek into the internal discussions at Openstreetmap about the subject. Those are pretty intense. The community is very divided. There are actually people in the community who believe that you submit to the law of the jungle if you only consider the situation on the ground. But the community has yet to reach a definitive consensus.

OpenStreetMap works with volunteers. The target group is not specifically editorial offices or journalists. That is different for Vizrt, a company that makes specific software for newsrooms. It is a giant player in the editorial software world. The map broadcast on TV was generated with Vizrt software, but based on Openstreetmap data. Catherine Webb from Vizrt told me the following:

“Vizrt has no political affiliations. We work with professional standard data providers who draw geopolitical borders based on UN standards”.

But – to be clear – the Golan Heights annexation was never recognized by the UN. Catherine Webb promised an update of the default files of “contested territories”.

In fact, that update wasn’t necessary. The Vizrt database does contain maps depicting the Golan Heights as a separate and contested area. But VRT graphic designers told me that if they load the shape of Israel in the software tool, the Golan Heights are simply included, without warning. It just happens. So effectively, the software and the database make that decision without informing the graphic designers or the journalists.  The graphic designers must be alert enough to notice this and they must remove or shade the Golan Heights manually. That is exactly what went wrong with the published maps. The graphic designer didn’t notice what the software had done.

VRT NWS remains responsible

It’s the news organization that remains responsible for the published maps. The published maps were therefore considered as an explicit error made by VRT NWS. Lessons must be learnt from this mistake.

An email was sent out to the editorial staff to inform graphic designers and journalists that maps of Israel are only to be created at one central point to make sure that people won’t use archived maps of standard shapes as a starting point. The risk of not noticing that those maps include the Golan Heights is too big.

But a newsroom is a strange thing

Unfortunately, an newsroom is a strange thing. On April 7, yet another map of Israel aired, showing the Golan as an uncontested territory. “Embarrassing”, is the word I got to hear the most when I asked people how this could have happened. The graphic designer who was on duty that day was informed about the situation. The map on the website was correct this time. But when it came to the TV news, the human eye had once again lost sight of what the software had done.

Apparently, it is not easy for graphic designers to simply remove the maps that VRT NWS doesn’t want to use. They keep popping up over and over again in all sorts of ways. Since the mistake, sample maps are hanging on the walls of the editorial office. Everyone is expected to check whether the map provided by the system corresponds to the one VRT wants.

A map remains a sensitive thing

But a map is never a simple thing. If there are serious discussions concerning borders, it’s logical that those discussions are shown. A dotted line is all that is needed sometimes.

But conflicts about borders do exist, just as seas and mountains exist. When cartographers decide to hide such conflicts, they are making a very delicate, and in my view an irresponsible choice when they make maps for newsrooms.

In any case, the VRT editors cannot afford to just follow that lead.

Tim Pauwels

VRT Ombudsman

April 2019