The soldier suicides: Good story, done badly

The Metro had a story on the site last month about soldiers committing suicides, that I think is a really good and important story, but could have really been presented and written in a much better way. It’s here, if you want to have a look.

Firstly, we’re bombarded with figures but not really given enough space to actually make sense of them. It starts:

Every 65 minutes, a US military veteran takes his own life, the equivalent of 22 former soldiers committing suicide every day.

This would be much better if it was just written in a straight way, omitting the 65 minutes. While the “every 65 minutes” sounds more shocking, it’s a weird amount of time to get your head around. If it was 60 minutes (a unit of time we are all familiar with in our daily lives), it would have a lot more impact, but obviously you can’t just make up the numbers to suit your piece.

…more active-duty US soliders killed themselves (177) in 2012 than died in war zones (176).

Across all services, 349 military personnel committed suicide last year, compared to the 311 American troops killed in combat.

Yet more numbers that are difficult to make sense of easily. It may have been better to write it up without the numbers but show the figures in a chart, like this:

Soldier suicides

This example chart I just whipped up isn’t that great, because there are only two pieces of information in it, but the original data could have been interrogated to compare suicides with those killed in combat over a number of years. Has the number of suicides risen? Yes – the piece already explains that, but there is no way for the reader to explore that data themselves. The data has been cherry-picked, and as someone interested in figures and numbers, I’m left wondering what’s been left out.

There are some other interesting figures, too, relating to the number of suicides between 2001 and 2011 after tours to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is again, just written – it would be much better as a visualisation, easing the numbers into the piece rather than confronting the reader with so many figures that it’s hard to get a good understanding of what exactly is going on. Here’s one way they could have done it:

Soldier suicides 2

Talking of infographics and charts, the infographic included in the article has been made for the paper. It is longer than the screen (well, MY screen – on my MacBook pro) and effectively blocks the article in a way which isn’t that user-friendly. The two most useful points on this graphic are the ‘4,552 suicides by men in Britain’ (bottom right corner), and the donut chart at the top right corner, which explains that 74% of military cases assessed in 2011/12 had a mental disorder. That’s something worth charting in a more pleasing way, though, I think. Leading with a raw number (5,404 – which is the total number of military cases) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here, whereas “nearly three quarters” or 74% is more immediately compelling.

The three soldier heads in the infographic is a bit strange – they don’t universally indicate ‘three times as likely’ (rather, I assumed it was something to do with three PEOPLE, eg three soldiers committing suicide every x hours), and the clock also doesn’t make much sense in this context, because (as I explained above) it’s a strange number that doesn’t translate well into a simple diagram, using units we are already conversant with.

Overall I think the piece could have done with more efficient and lively infographics which pick out key figures in a way which can be easily identified on the first read, rather than forcing the reader to go back through and spend time trying to fully get to grips with what’s going on. I also think that the numbers could have been sprinkled throughout the piece in a more subtle way – again, to save the reader the work of having to sit there and figure out which numbers mean what.

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