Killed twice for the entertainment

“Stories from a changing media landscape”

22th of November 1963 president Kennedy was shot and killed by a sniper while traveling with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy and Texas’ Governor John Connally and his wife, Nelli, in the presidential motorcade. Quickly it became one of the biggest news stories the world had seen and Iowa Congressman Neal Smith said it felt like the whole world stopped. 50 Years later Norway’s most popular online newspaper, VG, decides to cover the shooting live as if it would have happened in 2013. I want to look in to what the audience thought of this. How did they liked the modern coverage and did they prefer the original or what VG did? I also want to try and figure out why people followed the coverage when most of them already knew that Kennedy died from the shooting in 1963. Finally I want to explore whether this could be a new direction within online journalism. To help me answers some of these questions I made a survey for VG’s audience and I also interviewed Steen Steensen, associate at the University in Oslo with expertise on how digital mediums use live updates.

Print-screen of VG’s Kennedy website

Original vs. innovation

So what has VG done differently than the traditional coverage? There are obviously many differences between the coverage then and the coverage now. For starts there was no such thing as an online newspaper in 1963. The technology has developed and most people do now own their own camera and recorder just by bringing their smartphone with them. With an easy access to such recording devices news can quickly be broadcasted or published. Any reporter with a smartphone can go live form basically anywhere. Therefore I would say that the largest differences between now and 50 years ago are the live updates. When VG covered the shooting, they had a reporter on the site going live and also a live blog that a number of journalists wrote. Actual footage that was taken 50 years ago by news stations such as CBS and NBC was published by VG at the exact same time as they were sent in 1963.

Clips from some of the original coverage in 1963 by CBS

Although live updates is a big part of VG’s coverage it misses an important aspect; the sharing. Even though they had a comment section, people could naturally not share tweets or actual pictures or video from the incident. However, the comment section allowed the readers to speak their opinion. These comments were anything from comments on how VG cover the Kennedy shooting, but also comments by people who were there or who remembered the shooting. Still the lack of sharing elements such as pictures and videos creates a hole in VG’s live coverage and are some of the things that make it incomplete. However it is incredible that Norway’s most read online newspaper spend this much resources on a coverage that wasn’t really hard news but in the grey areas between feature and entertainment. I will come back to this aspect later, but first let’s take a look at what made this possible for VG:

The freedom of an online newspaper

As an online newspaper you have much more freedom in terms of how you use your space. As I wrote, the Kennedy shooting was not news in 2013. News can be defined as new information. However an online newspaper can in fact spend time and space on such an event because the online newspapers may not struggle with the same problems as traditional media when it comes to space. It overcomes spatial and temporal limitations of traditional media. The audience is given the option to choose what news they want more than they can with the traditional media such as a regular newspaper or the news on TV. The audience is given a control. Nevertheless, VG did put the Kennedy shooting on the front section, which is precious space also for online newspapers. By putting the Kennedy shooting on the front section, the readers can be easily intrigued and might click on that story rather then a story about today’s events around the world.

What did the audience think?

As I’ve written, a large number of those who followed the live reporting from the Kennedy shooting already knew that the president died from it. To find more out about what the audience thought of VG’s coverage I made a survey. I posted it on Facebook asking people to participate. Because I don’t have that many people over 50 on Facebook, I emailed the survey to my parents and grandparents and asked if they could spread it among their friends and colleagues. In total I’ve got 26 replies. Here are the questions I asked:

1. In 2013 VG covered the shooting of president Kennedy as if it would have happened today. VG reported live and published photos and video as the incident unfolded. The images and video clips were from 1963, but the way they reported was state of the art. What do you think about this idea?

2. Did you follow VG’s coverage?

3. Kennedy died in 1963, yet many followed VG coverage of the murder 50 years later. If you were one of those who followed the coverage, and already knew the outcome, could you tell me why you followed it? If you were one of those who did not, can you tell me why you chose to follow the coverage?

4. The image of Kennedy’s bodyguard climbing up on the president’s, car seconds after Kennedy was shot was on the front page of countless newspapers in 1963. Short video clips from the parade where the president gets shot was also broadcasted. VG covered the event with modern tools such as comment sections and live updates. What coverage seems most powerfully to you?

When I first sent out the survey I expected that a lot of people had followed the coverage. That was the impression I had got from speaking to friends and family when the reporting was on going in 2013. However my survey showed something else. Only 3 out of 26 had followed it. In some ways I was disappointed in the results because I knew that the rest of the question mainly was based on people who had followed it. Yet the results were interesting: Over twice as many participants said they thought the idea was exciting compared to those who said it was pointless or irrelevant. One said he thought VG’s coverage was an interesting cross between a documentary and a historic celebration. Others said that it was irrelevant to the time we now live in. However the ones that said it was a good idea still made some demands; It would only be a good idea as long as it did not take focus and resources that where needed somewhere else.

Moving on to question number 3 which dealt with why the audience followed the coverage although many of them knew the outcome; since many of the participants already answered that they hadn’t followed it, obviously many just answered that. But surprisingly enough a lot of the participants answered why they didn’t follow it by choice. One said he/she did not follow the coverage because they thought that VG’s live studio layout was confusing. Another said he/she would prefer “real news” instead of entertainment. A third person wrote (and I assume this is one of the older participants) that he/she really liked what VG did because then they could compare it to how the incidence was covered back in 1963; “Back then Kennedy was good at using television as a medium”. Nevertheless, what I thought was the most interesting answer was this; “I followed the coverage just for fun”. I’ll come back to why this answer is defining later on.

The last question that I asked (and maybe the most interesting one) is what the audience thought of today’s coverage with modern tools compared to the original coverage in 1963. The participants could choose between these alternatives:

a) The coverage in 1963 shook the world and would still have done today. I think the tools and funds and journalists had at the time would also have given an equally powerful impression and been sufficient enough today

b) The modern coverage covers a greater extent our need for information when we want it. I favor VG’s modern coverage.

c) A mixture of the two above. Live Updates are important, but a dramatic picture of a wounded president on the cover of the newspaper is still equally effective.

d) Others

It may not be surprising that, as much as 65 % said they prefer a mix. However what I thought was unexpected was that as many as 19 % would prefer the original coverage compared to 7,5 % who preferred the modern one. This shows that basic journalistic tools still create a great impact on its audience. However it was expected that the majority (considering we live in a time when most of us are used to getting news and information whenever we want it and how we want it ) would prefer a mix.

The answers tells us that although we might like to think that we are “addicted” to these modern journalistic tools, the traditional ones are still important to tell a good story to the audience. My survey shows that a powerful image such as the one on the front page of The Guardian 23th of November 1963 is still vital to the online journalism.

News as entertainment

Going back to one of the answers from my survey, a participant claims he/she followed VG’s coverage “just for the fun of it”. This is an interesting answer because it implicate that this person saw the coverage as entertainment rather than news. Considering how the online newspapers struggles with issues such as how to bring in money, this may have been a stunt to generate more users, but this is only speculation as VG has not been able to be interviewed. However, with in the media industry it is a known fact that the increasing use of advertising in the online newspaper may be at the expense of content. Increasingly celebrity- and entertainment news fills up the online newspapers because those stories generate more users. They are so called “click hits”; a popular story many click on to read. Another participant wrote back on my survey saying that he/she though it was “ interesting cross between a documentary and a historic celebration”. If we take another look at the news criteria new information and sensation is among them. I would hardly say that the VG’s content contained new information, but they did however cover a sensation. An anniversary is in a way a sensation. I think many would agree that it was fascinating when VG showed us have it could have been done today, but is that really how they should be using their resources? To fascinate people or to inform? By all fairness the 50 years marking was covered by all the biggest newspapers, radio- and TV stations in Norway, but many of them only mentioned it while showing a few pictures of the day it happened. No one went to the extend VG did. So this raises my final question; was it just entertainment or was it the beginning of a new type of online journalism?

Is this the future of online journalism?

To get some answers to some of these questions I contacted Steen Steensen. He is an associate at the University in Oslo with expertise on how digital mediums use live updates. When I showed him what VG had done with the Kennedy-shooting he immediately saw this coverage as an extension to the “live-culture” we see today. He said both TV, radio and online journalism has embraced the live-studio culture and that sometimes the live coverage can be a bit overdone. He says “News stations wants to create drama, create news, so they go live from anywhere anytime”. He also states that the never-ending debate whether the resources that are used to cover events or incidences live should be going to researching for other stories also apply here. However Steensen says it’s hard to argue whether this was a waist of resources or not when he’s not familiar with the other news that were put aside that day.

Going back to the participant that answered he/she followed VG’s coverage “just for the fun”, Steensen claims this is not a new phenomenon. “Why can’t news be fun?” he asks and goes on; “This Kennedy coverage is a mix between feature and so called memory journalism; a type of journalism that is growing and still part of the news”. Steensen says that VG in particular is the kind of newspaper who tries to combine news with entertainment as much as possible to generate more readers. However there is nothing wrong in that Steensen claims. In other words he disproves my thesis that this was perhaps for the sake of money.

One of my biggest questions when starting the research was why people would follow the live coverage in 2013 when they already knew what had happened in 1963. Steensen draws parallels to the Hollywood industry; “People see great movies about historical event’s all the time; for instance the movie “Flight 93” about 11. September. Although everyone knew what happened, people still went to see it”. When I asked Steensen whether it was the newspapers or the movie makers’ job to recreate such events he answered this: “That is a good point, but I think the news value in the Kennedy case is not in what happened at the end. It’s how it happened and how it all unfolded minute by minute. To those of us who weren’t there this is a great way of giving people information about the details and at the same time give a sense of what it would like to be there in 1963”. He wrapped it up by saying: “It’s difficult to argue that this is not journalistic interesting or significant”.

Conclusion

Considering the opinions of Steensen’s and how they reflect on my survey, I’ve come to the conclusion that VG’s Kennedy project may have been an extension of the Live-culture that Steensen talks about. But as the participants says; there must be a mix of the new live coverage and the traditional coverage. A live-blog alone cannot replace a powerful image or a shocking footage. My survey has also reviled that not as many people as I thought did actually follow the coverage. But then again 26 people is not quite enough to generalize that result to a bigger crowd. Because there were only three people that had followed it, I didn’t get a good enough idea of the reasons why the audience followed it although they knew the outcome. However Steensen provided me with what I call the Hollywood-theory. Although we know what is going to happen in the end, the excitement lies in how we get there. Although Steensen rejects my arguments about this being a money-generating project, I still think the coverage leans a bit more to entertainment than news. It is still journalism, but it is not giving me any new information or any new angels that I can’t already find elsewhere. Nevertheless VG have successfully managed to create a modern coverage of one of the world’s most important days in news, even if it is for the amusement sake.

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