Of videos, infographics, and attention spans

I’m afraid I’m a little conservative when it comes to infographics, explainer videos and the like.

In an age when readers are less and less willing to read long-form pieces, one-minute long videos seem to water down journalism even more. If we can even talk of journalism, that is.

buzzfeed-skeleton

Err… Right.

However, this is just ol’ me being all grumpy and technophobic. Sure, the most “shareable” videos aren’t exactly masterpieces of critical theory. Nevertheless, even sites notoriously more on the entertainment side, like BuzzFeed, occasionally produce genuinely interesting works:

buzzfeed-electoral-college-biased

Truth is, even the most avid Financial Times reader may not have the time or the interest to read a full-length profile of a public figure in the time that it takes him to commute in the morning. Still, he may want to know the basic facts, so that he’ll be able to get in on the talk during coffee break. Well, that sounds just like a journalist’s job: give a clear and concise picture of a topic.

asma-al-assad-guardian

News is complicated. There’s no pretending that’s not the case. Our brain needs to schematize things in order to understand them. But is that a task we should leave to the reader? Well, at that point, we may as well give him Excel spreadsheets.

That’s where infographics come in truly useful. To get a grasp on things, we need a mental map, and journalism needs to provide it, now that it’s able to do so.

Would you rather read this as a two-page-long list? (from the European Commission website)

Images convey information quicker than words, there’s no denying that. And in an era where information needs to move faster than ever, lest it be stranded in oblivion, journalists need to make use of this new language.

Eyes wide open

Never before in human history has it been easier to find information from a single location. Yet not every piece of discourse can be neatly packaged into news.

I dare not think of what being a journalist was like fifty, thirty, even just twenty years ago. There’s no pretending that the internet has made it much easier – for me at least – to produce a writer’s first, humble pieces of journalism.

Surely there are some nostalgics who look back fondly to the times when news came – if it ever did – from a chat at the counter, or from a phone booth call. Perhaps you were best buddies with someone at the police office, or the Crown Court, and they’d give you a tipoff flying over their superior’s head.

Even if such a reality ever existed, I doubt it allowed for better journalism than the one we do today. Those that think of modern journalists as little more than copywriters probably don’t understand the full potentiality of sources we have today.


Seminars and conferences

More than a good story can begin by going to that lecture your university has been promoting. They say it’s bad practice to expect your interviewee to tell you what the story is, but if you could invite that certain lecturer to have a private in-depth discussion, you might get occasion to dwelve on issues other journalists ignore. That is how I got the prompt for an article on the flaws of EU research funding (which, may I add, I’m rather fond of).


Statistics

God bless YouGov. Living in an open society means having access to statistics, and some outlets are goldmines for journalists: the Office for National Statistics, Statista, Interpol, Europol

tampa-bay-times-statistics

From the Tampay Bay Times series, Failure Factories

Of course, as the saying goes, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”: sometimes the numbers may look interesting on the surface, but actually be completely in the norm. In that case, however, it’s your job to debunk attempts to spin the figures in a misleading way. Governments often try to pass percentages as proof that they’re doing a good job with the economy, when actually they just fit in a routine trend.


FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests

Tony Blair probably didn’t realise how powerful a tool he was putting in citizens’ hands when he enacted the Freedom of Information Act. Being able to request any information of public interest is one of the best things to happen to journalists in years, and they were quick to make use of it.

rewrew.PNGObviously, it takes practice to master the system, and there will occasions on which politicians will hold onto certain documents with their teeth. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly powerful tool – and some people are understandably unhappy with that.


Of course, not all of this is possible in every country. Britain is an extremely transparent society, and thanks god for that. Some may say it’s a weakness when compared to other countries like Russia or China. We journalists, however, like to think it’s actually a sign of strength.

I’m okay. Thanks.

Last night, I stayed up until 6 am, to watch the presidential election unfold.

I’ll avoid going over the pain that was watching counties and states go red. We know how it ends. No point in rewatching the reel.

We were all in the lecture theatre in the Bute bulding, where our school is. We weren’t many to begin with – 20 people, maybe – but by 5 o’clock in the morning, only a handful remained. We few. We not so happy few.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m of European citizenship. I come from a country where we’re hardly outraged anymore, so used we got to the mediocre status quo of things.

Perhaps that’s the reason why what I saw next, as Trump’s victory loomed closer, deeply unsettled me: my friends, my American friends, were struggling to hold back the tears.

This morning (well, afternoon) just like after Brexit, I woke up feeling bitter, but normal. Then, hour after hour, a subtle and unsettling feeling kept crawling up my back.

I spent most of the day reading articles on what will happen next, on how a Trump presidency can be just as bad as it sounded in predictions. This is the year I finally stopped the seeing the world as inherently rational, where politics and rhetorics are one big bluff, and started words at face value.

I’m not latino. I’m not black. I’m not a woman and I don’t live in the USA. However, I’m European at a time where Russia is becoming more and more aggressive, I’m a journalist in a society where populism and “illiberal democracy” are on the rise, and most importantly, I’m a human in a world that can’t seem to tackle climate change. And the most powerful man in this world is now a climate change negationist who wants to scrap the Paris Agreement.

I suddenly feel tense. I’m laying on the sofa, and my back isn’t relaxed at all. I feel a slight knot in the throat, my breathing slightly deeper than usual.

Here’s hoping to a better morning.

 

A million perspectives: different papers, different coverage

brexit-1477302_1280

The morning of November 4th, last Friday, was one of the rare instances when all major British newspapers focused on the same topic in their front pages.

Before we analyse this, let’s make a fundamental distinction. What had happened was that the High Court had ruled against the PM’s prerogative to start the Brexit process on her own, instead upholding the Parliament’s right to vote over it. What was told across the papers, however, varied wildly.

By the time people had gone out that morning, they were full aware of what had happened. News apps, television, the websites – every outlet had made sure that everyone was informed. So what was left to the papers to do…?

city_am-750

Nobody is really interested in the news itself, at least not in this day and age. But everybody is interested in the aftermath of the news: the consequences, the reactions, the adjustments to the new status quo. In other words, actions.

And a call to action is exactly how the Daily Express opened (with hysterical overtones):

cwxr1nrxua8b1dt

The Telegraph, Sun and Daily Mail, meanwhile, framed it as a blow to democracy, complete with wanted poster-style pictures of the judges:

Broadsheet papers, meanwhile, in a sort of “neutral observer” attitude, were more concerned with what this would mean for Theresa May’s government:

What we can see from this rare occasion, then, is that papers aren’t that interested about writing about mere facts anymore. After all, facts are what’s reported on court rulings, on specialized newswires, on bureaucratic documents.

What people want to have on their tables – or tablets – in the morning is a frame to make sense of those facts. Never before has the “So what?” element been more important in writing an article. And today, it’s a thin line the writer walks: that between making sense and fabricating sense.