Posted by: structureofnews | October 3, 2017

Structured Witness

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Of all the functions that journalism performs – explaining, investigating, watchdogging, etc – simply bearing witness to breaking news events would seem to be low on the totem pole in an age of crowdsourcing, easy self-publishing, and platforms that encourage ordinary people to post what they see.

And it’s certainly true that news organizations can’t be everywhere where news breaks – and even more so now that many newsrooms are that much smaller – and that many are increasingly dependent on user-generated content from on-the-ground witnesses.  (Shameless plug: At Reuters, it’s tools like News Tracer that helps us find those events and those witnesses.)

But just because everyone can do it doesn’t mean news organizations can’t add value to the process, and two recent examples show how.  Let’s call them – or at least I will – structured witnessing.

Exhibit A in this genre is this great Cincinnati Enquirer project covering a week in the lives of heroin addicts.

It’s really nice work – and while it isn’t intended to be particularly explanatory or investigative, it offers a nuanced view into a deeply troubled world.  It doesn’t attempt to sum up the issue, assign fault, or ponder solutions.  But at the same time, by setting a team on it, focused on a defined time period, and designing it beautifully, it allowed readers to get a better understanding of the scale and human cost of the problem – far more so than a single, deeply reported profile piece would have done.

As Enquirer Editor Peter Bhatia noted: :

We set out to do this project to not to affirm or deny differing views on the cost of battling addiction and its impact. Rather, we set out to understand how it unfolds day in and day out.

Similarly, the NYT also showcased a one-day-in-Puerto-Rico-after-hurricane-Maria project that brought readers into the day-to-day struggles of people grappling with shortages of electricity, drinking water and other basic supplies.

True, in projects such as these, all of the vignettes are just that – vignettes – and don’t always have the force of data or deep analysis to show how typical they are or aren’t. The stories don’t necessarily dig into the root causes of an issue – or even sometimes have a nut graf.  Nor do they have a strong central character that can draw readers through a narrative.

But that’s not the point.  Such broadly immersive experiences can help readers really get a sense of a problem, and often far more viscerally than any single narrative.  And while newsrooms no longer have a monopoly on breaking some kinds of news – that often happens on Twitter these days – these sorts of structured projects do play to news organization’s strengths.

Newsrooms can still mobilize and direct teams of people on a single task; in the case of the Enquirer, they deployed four dozen journalists for a week on the project.  They can dictate the kinds of information they want, and the form it comes in – structure – so it can fit into a template.  And they can design interfaces that show off that information in strong, narrative forms.

To be sure, this isn’t a new idea.  News organizations have been publishing these kinds of projects for years now.  But in a digital age, the idea can be expanded.  If the kinds of information that’s going into the experience is structured, then it can be easily regularly updated with more reports from the field, building up an ongoing picture of some phenomena.  And, in theory at least, readers could then pull up particular subsets of information – just the witness accounts from one part of town, say, or over a particular time period.

True, all of this takes time, effort and resources.  But if news organizations aren’t going to play as strongly as witnesses to history in a world of Twitter, they can still play a key role in organizing and presenting witness accounts in ways that keep them relevant and engage their readers.

What it takes is a commitment to cover something in depth, and regularly, and the discipline to follow through.  And that is what ultimately distinguishes a professional – someone who does something for a living – from the many others who do similar tasks.

 

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