Journalism in the Digital Age:Interacting with the Future

2001-08-15

  Digital technologies are trans-forming journalism. As the Internet, World Wide Web and dozens of other digital technologies grow in popularity, news and media organizations around the world are adapting to the opportunities and threats presented by these new media.

  From July 3-20 of this year, I taught a special new media training program for 13 staff members at Radio Television Hong Kong. The staff, my students, learned about how new media are making possible a form of news reporting I describe as contextualized journalism. Details on this notion are provided in my new book, Journalism and New Media, published in June, 2001, by Columbia University Press.

  The essential notion is that journalism traditionally has been very effective at shining a spotlight on the problems and developments of the day. But, traditional journalism, for a variety of reasons, has often failed to place those stories in enough context to understanding them fully. One of the most significant reasons has been technological.

  The analog media system, the system that media have operated in for virtually their entire history, has had limited capacity. This capacity has been limited by space in print media, and time in electronic media. The analog media have also been limited in their ability to make connections between stories or developments in those stories and related background information, history, if you will.

  Moreover, the traditional, analog media, have been largely one-way in their information flow, from the journalist to the public. This passive audience model has limited the involvement or engagement of the public in journalism and public affairs.

Contextualized Journalism

  New media present an opportunity to transform the situation by enabling reporters to do five things differently with their stories. First, stories can make connections. They can do this through hypermedia, or links, the connecting tissue fundamental to the World Wide Web, the global publishing medium of the Internet. Through links, reporters can provide additional background or depth to their stories. This is especially important for stories that have long lives, or that run for many days, weeks or months, even years. Many times, readers may forget or simply be unaware of the history of a story, some of the names or terms that are mentioned. Reporters in traditional media don't always have space or time to explain all this background in every story, but through links, they can point to the relevant material.

  Second, new media can be interactive. Audience members can interact with each other or with reporters or sources, engaging in a dialog. Rather than sit back and only watch or listen, audience members can participate in a discussion room on line. They can send email to a reporter. The reporter may get an important lead on a story. A factual error might be quickly corrected. Audiences can interact with content. They can navigate through a 360-degree video. They can click on a "hot spot" and access additional information, text, audio or video that further explains a story element.

  Third, new media permit a wider or richer use of communication modalities. Words, spoken or written, background sound, still photographs and graphics, motion pictures, and more are all possible in a digital, networked environment. All of these modalities give the reporter more tools to tell a story and can engage audiences more fully by engaging more of the audience members' senses. Research shows that attention, understanding and retention are all increased when more communication modalities are engaged in the classroom. There's no reason why the same can't be true in journalism.

  Fourth, content can be more dynamic in a digital environment. It can be updated and kept current in an online medium such as the Internet or digital broadcasting system. Moreover, content is available on-demand and flows continuously from source to receiver and back again. This fluid system keeps the audience and journalist in a constant state of connection, whether the audience or journalist is at home, newsroom, or out and about in their community connected through a mobile phone, two-way pager or wireless personal digital assistant.

  Finally, new media make possible a new level of customization never possible before in journalism. Journalists have always strived to make their stories relevant. When stories break on a national, regional or even international stage, good journalists have always tried to localize them. They have always tried to find a local connection, a person, place or consequence for the home town, state or country. But, new media make it possible to take this journalistic ideal of localization to the ultimate level of the individual. Every story can be potentially made relevant to each individual person. This is impossible in traditional media.

  Consider an example from the number one news site in the U.S., msnbc.com. MSNBC's cable parent ran a story about the five most dangerous roads in the U.S. This is a good story, and of general interest. But, imagine if you could then tell the viewer, every viewer, about the most dangerous roads in their home town or even their neighborhood. MSNBC.com did just that by taking public records from the National Traffic Safety Administration and putting a simple zip code (postal code, but it could have been a street address, intersection or landmark) interface on the database, and allowed every person who visited the MSNBC.com Web site to enter their zip code (or any other) and instantly see the most dangerous roads there. I entered my Manhattan zip code of 10027, and found that Broadway, perhaps Manhattan's most famous roadway, was also it's most dangerous, with nine fatalities in the previous year.

Learning New Media Tools

  The students in my three-week new media course learned not only about this five-part model of contextualized journalism, but how to implement in covering real stories. The students learned five sets of new media tools:

1) Digital audio and video acquisition, including still and full motion video, with conventional lenses as well as lenses to capture 360 degree views, and post-production, or editing on a laptop using commercial software tools;

2) Internet research and communications, including search engines as well as file transfer protocols;

3) Web page design and construction for journalism and publishing pages to the World Wide Web;

4) Interactive content production, including interactive graphics, maps, and full motion video;

5) Customizing content, including creating customizable maps.

  The students implemented these five new tools through both classroom exercises as well as field reporting. Working in teams of six of seven, the students developed their own original story ideas, and then reported them using the tools they learned about in class. The students also learned about the problems and pitfalls of journalism and new technology.

  Among the issues we discussed and debated were the ethics of digital image manipulation, the erosion of privacy in the information age, and piracy threats and how to protect intellectual property with tools such as digital watermarks.

  Through the three-week course, students reported four stories, the Temple Street Singers, the Hong Kong Book Fair (and the missing Falun Gong), the Cattle Depot Artists Community, and the Wet Market v. the Supermarket (comparing them in the context of health related concerns). The students' assignment was to implement the new media tools to produce their reports.

  Some of the tools the students worked with are very experimental, and as a result, some of the content is available only locally (i.e., off line), but is available on CDs we burned at the end of the class. For the Book Fair report, the students produced a 3D copy of one of the books exhibited at the fair, and you can almost hold the book in your hand, turning it and looking inside. Otherwise, you can go online to the course web site http://geocities.com/newmedia_web/ and experience full-motion 360 video reports as well as interactive video (motion video embedded with interactive objects, or hot spots, providing text annotations, links and more) and other media reporting on the assignments.

  In the brief time they had available, the students did a great job learning about contextualized journalism and the tools currently available to produce it. Through their work the students demonstrated that journalism in the digital age can be engaging and can place stories in a rich context. Is it better journalism? Judge for yourself.

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