Illuminating Emerging Forms of Journalism in Unexpected Places
An early report from our #THISisJournalism social media campaign
By Andrew DeVigal & Mike Fancher
It was a presentation months in the making.
Titled “THIS is Journalism,” the presentation carried enormous expectations as the ending plenary to our conference that asked that very question: What is Journalism? Luckily, we had help from many whose tweets illuminated emerging forms of journalism in unexpected places.
Earlier this year, the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) Agora Journalism Center launched the #THISisJournalism social media campaign and website. #THISisJournalism is a collection of transformative projects that challenges our definition of journalism while also serving the functions of journalism to enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life. We encouraged highlighting work outside the obvious places of mainstream media, but welcomed examples of traditional media engaging with stories and communities in new ways.
As we hashtagged tweets and encouraged others to submit projects, websites or articles, we used a traditional definition of journalism as the prism through which we viewed the new examples. For this presentation, we accepted the traditional journalists’ definition, principles and elements of journalism, and then presented emerging examples that fit them.
Here is what American Press Institute has stated in their Journalism Essentials:
Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities. Journalism can be distinguished from other activities and products by certain identifiable characteristics and practices. These elements not only separate journalism from other forms of communication, they are what make it indispensable to democratic societies. History reveals that the more democratic a society, the more news and information it tends to have.
The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.
We were looking for examples that fulfill that purpose in new ways. What has been assembled in the #THISisJournalism collection so far is by no means exhaustive. With a little over 120 links and 40 contributors (at the time of this writing), it’s only meant to be a catalyst. In fact, our intention is to keep the site collecting these hashtags from Twitter and Instagram to continue the conversation.
For our closing plenary at the “What Is Journalism?” conference session, we shared the patterns we recognized as well as some observations from the collection. Some early trends are:
The New Format & Platforms
In many of these cases, old is new again. Satirical shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have long been argued as the source of news for the younger set. Comedy’s “sleeper effect” certainly has that retention power. Monica Guzman pointed to John Oliver’s segment on Net Neutrality as one that “explained a critical but confusing topic in an engaging way and had an impact on policy.” Others pointed to projects that have recently pushed more traditional forms:
Several tweets highlighted media organizations publishing exclusively on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. AJ+, for example, doesn’t have a content website per se, but instead leverages existing platforms to increase their brand awareness and distribute their video stacks. #THISisJournalism highlighted these other publishers:
- Jersey Shore Hurricane News on Facebook
- Reported.ly on Medium
- Everyday Africa on Instagram (also on Tumblr & Facebook, HT @wespope)
- Homeless in Seattle on Facebook (HT @PeggyHolman)
The New Front Page
What would you consider to be your front page for news? Facebook and Twitter are often cited. Many consider Reddit as their front page of the Internet including their news. How people are discovering their news is also shaping how journalists and communities interact on these platforms. #THISisJournalism highlighted these platforms:
The New Bulletin Board
A physical bulletin board, meant for public messages, providing information, announcing events or advertising items wanted or for sale, continues to thrive in many local communities. A digital experience enhances that engagement. Launched in 1995, Craigslist remains to be the godfather of classified advertisements on the web. Developed with the same intentions, these digital public forums were also highlighted on #THISisJournalism:
- SeeClickFix — report neighborhood issues and see them get fixed (HT @toddmilbourn)
- Next Door — private social network for neighbors and community
- Listening Post (@LP_NOLA via New Orleans Public Radio, HT @andrewhaeg)
- Front Porch Forum — helping neighbors connect
- Switchboard — people asking for what they need and giving what they can
The New Investigator
Then there are those individuals or groups of individuals with the will, passion and intelligence to pursue where others won’t or have not. The one that stands out in this category is Eliot Higgins, a British citizen journalist, blogger and the founder of Bellingcat, who has become a weapons analysis expert and leading source of information on the conflict in Syria. CJ Chivers of The NYTimes has identified him as “a one-man news service,” and thanked Eliot for “creating an opportunity for merging new and old forms of reporting into a fresh look at recent events.” Eliot is also a contributor to Storyful’s Open Newsroom initiative, breaking news openly and collaboratively. This is another example of the evolving definition of an investigative journalist.
Yes! Magazine and Solutions Journalism Network have been on the forefront in advancing the dialogue by highlighting stories of people or organizations working toward solutions to social problems. There were a number of resources and projects that were mentioned in the #THISisJournalism campaign that highlight opportunities to turn compassion into action. Kathryn Thier pointed to RJI’s post on Public Radio International’s StoryAct, a new, experimental tool, funded by The Knight Foundation, designed to display relevant user-actions within a text story and streamlining the process of getting involved and taking action. Holly Epstein Ojalvo also contributed into the ecosystem with her new startup, Kicker, which makes current events accessible, engaging, and actionable.
Talking about new and emerging forms of journalism can’t be complete without mentioning data or data visualizations, which in many ways, remains to be an evolving form within established news organizations. #THISisJournalism curated these data-rich standalone projects:
- Interactive Bike Accident Tracker (on Bay Citizen, HT @damianradcliffe)
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind (on drone attacks, HT @emcmillion)
- The American Values Atlas (HT @nicoledahmen)
- U.S. Gun Deaths (via @periscopic)
Finally, and certainly not least, especially in the domain of new engaging forms of storytelling and journalism, are projects that fall under the area of news games or interactive documentary. Often, these interactives allow you to take on individual roles as a player in the experiences to help you understand the choices being made and perhaps build empathy towards the characters of the story. #THISisJournalism identified these game-like experiences and projects:
- Inside the Haiti Earthquake
- Rebuilding Haiti (HT @pierremorel)
- Fort McMoney (via NFb, HT @emcmillion)
- Syrian Journey (via BBC News)
From these examples and the categories in which they fall, we made the following observations about how the journalism of the future might differ from that of the past. The operative word for these observations is “More.”
An example of community collaboration that is generating journalism is Milwaukeenns.org, an online neighborhood news service that pledges professional multimedia reporting on urban issues in 17 communities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is a project of the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee, with funding from several local and national foundations and the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
The Bristol Cable, “a media co-operative created and owned by people in the city,” was another site submitted to #WHATisJournalism to highlight the various perspectives to collaboration.
MORE Engaged and Participatory
The old distributive model of journalism is inadequate for the interactive participation people expect in the digital world. People are no longer satisfied to passively consume news, and the definition of journalism must become more expansive if it to be relevant.
The BBC created a mobile news bureau. BBC Pop-Up is a small team of reporters travelling across the United States, relocating to a new town each month. The team visited and looked for under-reported stories. When the project concluded, the editors wrote, “In 197 days, the rambling band of journalists traveled through 19 of the 50 U.S. states, living for a month at a time in six of them. All in all, the crew created 51 glossy videos, of which 46 were full feature reports and five were behind-the-scenes video shorts. Nearly all ideas for our stories were crowdsourced from local residents in the towns we visited.” The Seattle Times’ collaboration with Solutions Journalism resulted in the “Education Lab,” solutions journalism plus community engagement equal impact.
Oakland Voices is The Oakland Tribune’s program to train East Bay residents to tell the stories of their neighborhoods. The Tribune says it created Oakland Voices “as a vehicle for community members to become multimedia storytellers, and to be new voices directly shaping the coverage of this region.” One result has been that the residents have revealed stories that otherwise might have gone untold. Another is that resident stories have corrected misperceptions about their communities. Thus, coverage becomes more accurate and trustworthy.
MORE Voices Expressing Themselves In More Ways
The Center for Investigative Reporting is among those demonstrating that stories can be told in many forms, including poetry slams and stage plays.
- Off-Page Project — the intersection of youth voice & civic engagement
- Storyworks (with Tides Theatre) — explores a combination of live performance and journalism
Context has always been a vital part of the sensemaking function of journalism. Digital tools are being used like steroids for providing context to the news. News organizations, journalism students, interested citizens and academic experts are all contributing.
- Gistory — concise and contextualized news briefs that combine the best attributes of Wikipedia and Google Maps
- Seattle in Progress — a mobile web app that not only captures everything that is going on, but enables a conversation about it as well
- The Conversation — “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”
- Bloomberg QuickTake — the situation; the background; the argument; the reference shelf
New initiatives are being created to provide deep coverage and expertise in specialized areas of public importance. Often these are non-profit cooperative efforts with universities and foundations hoping the fill the void created by cuts in traditional newsrooms. These include:
- The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, an initiative of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University “to ensure that full-time, highly-qualified professional journalists are covering juvenile justice issues on a day-to-day basis, in Georgia, the Southeast and around the nation.”
- The Marshall Project — A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization to provide high-quality journalism about the American criminal justice system and to amplify the national conversation about the system’s failings.
- Chalkbeat — “a nonprofit news organization covering educational change efforts in the communities where improvement matters most. The network has bureaus in New York, Colorado, Indiana, and Tennessee.”
Ubiquitous and Immediate Acts of Journalism
A traditional role of journalism has been to bear witness. Cell phones, security videos, dashboard cameras, body cameras and other technologies are expanding this function exponentially, raising significant issues of truth and verification. The re-definition of journalism must include a re-examination of the standards, ethics and responsibilities required of both professionals and amateurs:
- Witness — “An international organization that trains and supports people using video in their fight for human rights. See it, film it, change it.”
- The Observers — using eyewitness accounts — ”people who are at the heart of event”
- Eyewitness Assignments — “the home of user-generated content on the Guardian”
- Video Volunteers — an international community media organization that “equips women and men in underdeveloped areas with video journalism skills, enabling entire communities to expose underreported stories”
We believe all of these examples achieve what the American Press Institute says is the purpose of journalism. They “provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”
Todd Milbourn, teaches innovation and investigation at the SOJC, referenced the longstanding mission of journalism to “speak truth to power,” adding that the emerging test of whether something is “journalism” may be whether it “speaks truth to empower.”
However the definition, principles and elements of journalism may change in the future, it is inescapable that “journalism” can and will be done by more people, on more platforms and with more variations. In addition to new competition, this will involve more cooperation, collaboration and co-creation among content providers.
We encourage journalists to embrace this reality. If they do, we believe the result will be journalism that is more abundant, more inclusive, more accurate, more relevant, more trusted and more sustainable.
Originally published at agora.uoregon.edu on April 16, 2015.
Andrew DeVigal is an endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication’sAgora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. Agora Journalism Center is devoted to transformative advancements for better journalism and stronger democracy. DeVigal is also co-founder of A Fourth Act, maker of Harvis.