A basic U.S. map is a staple of news graphics. They’re famous for election results, but used for lots of other state-by-state data. There are variations, like cartograms and “chartograms,” and it’s arguably the graphics form that Americans are most familiar and comfortable with.
So why don’t any* show U.S. territories? I’ve been thinking about this because many Americans don’t know Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, not a foreign country, and I suspect cartography standards may be partly responsible for this.
*If you know of any, please send them to me. But it’s not standard for any news organization.
The obvious answer is that it’s visually difficult — showing the extent of U.S. territories requires both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the islands are teeny tiny at that scale. Groups of islands don’t make solid graphic shapes the way Iowa or Utah do. Any land that’s not part of the contiguous 48 states requires mapping compromises. But cartography is pretty much always about compromises. Alaska and Hawaii are tricky, and we make it work because they are states. (After looking around a bit, it’s actually kind of amazing how often Alaska and Hawaii get left out in news graphics.)
Another answer is that a lot of U.S. datasets don’t include territories, or not in the same way, so there may be nothing to show. Territories have no purpose on presidential election maps, for example. We see this with Washington D.C., which is sometimes included and sometimes not, depending on the topic.
A related answer is that territories objectively just don’t matter that much. Not that many people, not that much political or economic power. But this isn’t true when it comes to population — 21 states have fewer people than Puerto Rico. (The other four continuously inhabited territories — U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands — have a total population smaller of almost 400,000 people, which is fewer than Wyoming.)
So, what if news maps routinely showed Americans the full extent of the U.S.? The way U.S. residents imagine the U.S. shapes the way they understand and think about their country, and the U.S. map is one of the first visuals that comes to mind when thinking about national identity and policy decisions. At first it would seem like a gimmick or a political statement to include territories on a presidential vote map, for example, since it would show U.S. citizens who can’t vote for their president. (American Samoans are not born citizens, interestingly.) But I’m curious what would happen if that became the standard, with news maps representing all U.S. citizens, showing us when territories are included and when they’re not.
I haven’t thought about exactly how to do this, though the recent trend toward cartograms seems like a good opportunity, especially for making Puerto Rico standard. I’m surprised I couldn’t easily find more about this, so I’m curious if others have tried this or found other reasons why it doesn’t work.