Future of Context: Getting the Bigger Picture Online
Jay Rosen, Matt Thompson and Tristan Harris discuss the concept of context as it relates to journalism in the new media landscape.
This American Life is a radio program produced by Chicago Public Radio. Their website describes the show like this: “There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.” It is sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound, but is it definitely not a news show.
In May of 2008, they produced a show entitled The Giant Pool of Money. It was an hour-long discussion about the housing crisis. I listened to the show when it was first broadcast, and I learned more about the housing crisis from that hour-long entertainment show than I learned from months of reading the New York Times.
Apparently, the folks on this panel agreed. They praised The Giant Pool of Money as an excellent example of how journalists should think about context as it relates to news.
In this day of online news, the flow of news is more constant, and more torrential. The more general problem with news, Matt Thompson observed, is that it’s episodic, and one needs systemic knowledge in order to understand something. Thompson believes classic journalism is good at providing systemic knowledge. Journalists spend lots of time gathering systemic knowledge when researching a story. However, most news websites trickle this knowledge out a bit at a time as a series of headlines so that every time you visit the site, there will be something new. Thompson thinks this habit developed among journalists because historically, stories were bounded by time. The daily newspaper gets replaced wholesale the next day, but on the web, information lives forever. Thompson believes all these factors create a situation where the information that gets emphasized is the information requiring the shortest attention span. What’s missing is context.
If you compare the approach to information between a site like Wikipedia and a site like The New York Times, Thompson’s observation becomes evident. He posed this question: ”Why are Wikipedia and The New York Times separate services?” Joking that all news stories should have a “New York Times view” and a “Wikipedia view”. Thompson expressed the view that people need to be informable, but current journalism does not promote this.
Jay Rosen responded that implicit in the freedom of the press is the freedom to ignore it. Some people choose to be uninformed. He also observed that journalism has historically been organized for efficiency, not participation. The tight deadlines required by newspapers and daily news programs insist on this. The web, however, has no fixed deadlines because it’s always on. The web also allows participation on an immense scale. Many people can contribute information. Journalism is no longer confined to just journalists. Everyone can participate. Rosen says: “The more people who participate in the press, the stronger it will be.”
Rosen believes another problem with most news is that stories requiring no background knowledge are intermingled with ones requiring a lot of background knowledge. Tristan Harris used a good example of going to an art museum with a curator or guide walking you through and explaining the background behind every painting. Now that you have the context, your experience in the museum goes beyond looking at pretty pictures. It becomes an experience of nuance and understanding. Classic journalism, because it is organized around articles, is not very good at providing the kind of context required for this deeper understanding.
Thompson observed that the issue is more about how context is presented on news sites. Most news sites present the story first, and the context is presented as a link to “more info”. He feels the context should be the foundation of the story, and the episodic aspect should be the “more info”. This context must include the minimum baseline information the user needs to understand the story. Newspaper and broadcast journalists can’t do this because time is limited, but web journalists have all the time and space they need in order to present the story and the context.
In order to organize the information at hand, journalists need to become more like engineers. Engineers never throw anything away that can be reused later. Software engineers and computer programmers write functions and subroutines that perform a specific task in a general way so that code can be reused later in a different applications. Journalists need to build an archive of past work that can be used to provide context for future stories. Web technology can help them manage this huge amount of data.
So, if freedom of the press implies the freedom to ignore the press, how we get people to pay attention? Rosen believes we start with the things people are interested in and expand from there. Start with what is closest to them. Family, friends, community, etc. Use these things to bring them along, providing context all the way. This engages the audience, and an engaged audience is more valuable to advertisers.
The Giant Pool of Money presented contextual information about the housing crisis as compelling narrative. That’s why it was so effective. Thompson called this the “hero’s quest” model of storytelling.
What if every beat reporter had to write this way?