Covering Science in Cyberspace

March 14, 2007

The Internet Changes Everything

...Or does it?

It changes many things, to be sure. Hyperlinks append the encyclopedia to end all encyclopedias to every article. Flash and php enable “interactive content” much more advanced than simple page-flipping. Many of the games and demos suggested today are excellent examples. The Internet also provides an unparalleled way to track how readers experience pages, articles and demos, through what they choose to click and what they post in blogs.

And yet, in the wake of the symposium today, I found myself mulling what Tom Sigfried said: “All that stuff is very nice, but is it journalism?”

...or, could it be journalism? More directly: are the technologies of the web going to remain supplemental material, or are they going to change the very core substance of journalism in the future?

I doubt it.

Alfred Hermida’s admonition that journalists need to “have a multimedia mindset” should be heeded, but also taken with a grain of salt. Every story can’t be deconstructed into bits.

Narrative is primary. People understand the world in terms of stories; that’s what they’re looking for in news. The implicit question people ask when they pick up a newspaper or magazine (or go online in search of news) is “what’s going on?”—and the answer to that can’t always come in choose-your-own adventure form. Breaking a feature article into blurb bios, a game, and a flash animation of the relevant science destroys something valuable. The narrative, the story, is lost.

I heard various grim statistics today about how few people will follow a link to the latter half of a story (less than 20%). Still, though, if a publication cuts all such stories, it shouldn’t be surprised by a 20% drop in readership.

People do have the patience for longer stories, even if they don’t read them much online. As I said today, I think this is largely the result of the discomfort of reading from current computer screens. I refuse to believe that the attention span for all readers has dropped to 300 words in the last ten years. I think that advances in display technology will prove that.

Just as MTV didn’t kill the feature film’s popularity, I can’t believe that the internet will reduce journalism to blurbs. People will still want someone to connect the dots for them, to tell them a story.

March 14, 2007

High Tech Fights Old Dignity

by Andrew McGregor

How to maintain integrity on the internet? An entity that was created by mathematicians and commercialized by pornographers is the hopeful nesting ground for the future of science writers.

The writers themselves do not see a problem in continuing what they were doing from their former print days when they chose not to lie and tell the news and things like this.  However, people instinctively do not trust what they read online versus traditional, authoritative sources and the public spends even less time reading online articles than print.

So, the preceding comprise at least two daggers pointed at the proverbial body of science writing.  The task of shoving the thoughtfulness and eloquence of the past into multi-media and diffuse cells does not look to be an easy one.

Fortunately though, there is a hope that all the online technological trend-hopping can just be avoided and that e-paper can fundamentally give people the searchability of the internet without the visual inconvenience of staring at a computer screen.

Acrimony is the only agreement, but there is hope that a future technology will allow the writers to do what they know how to very well and provide their readers with the meaningful content they so very much crave.

Will the twain meet under a new tech sky?

March 13, 2007

Radio, Online

The general sentiment at this conference is that young people are no longer reading newspapers and listening to the radio.  They are glued to their computers, getting their news from who knows where- blogs, podcasts, YouTube among them.

The question is; how do you share your journalistic wares in this new medium?

“We can’t just say, ‘isn’t it terrible they’re not reading newspapers?’” declared Alfred Hermida this morning.  “We have to find ways to reach them”

“We’re experimenting,” said Vicky Valentine from NPR, “Everyone is still trying to figure out the web, and what really works.”  She presented one of their experiments, an interactive site focusing on language.

The site used video and audio clips to explain different experiments on aspects of language.  One of the criticisms of this site, said Valentine, was that not all of the people who were interviewed for the site had video clips to share. 

Another interactive site that Valentine presented focused on the impact of the war in Iraq

One of the questions Valentine raised was how long the online clips should be.  How long are people’s attention spans when they’re online?  Is 2 minutes too much, too little?

You tell me, she says, showing us another interactive site, this one a slide show with audio about child brides in Ethiopia.  This one is great, she says, partly because it was so cheap to produce. Yet the vivid pictures accompanying the radio story add a whole new perspective to the story.

March 12, 2007

An embargo on science?

Will science coverage suffer if the embargo system is abandoned? If science reporters no longer have the advantage of several days to research their articles and talk to sources, will they start churning out crap?

This topic was touched on several times today.  Over lunch, Alexandra Witze from Nature was kind enough to explain the basics of the embargo system to us (me, Laura and Mark).

In the embargo system, everyone gets a list of journal articles, PDFs and supporting information in advance, on the condition that they will not publish anything until the agreed-upon date.  Each news organization then decides what to write about, and the stories are all published the same day, coinciding with the publication of the journal article. These tip sheets from the major journals, said Witze, are the “bread and butter” of science journalists.

Nowadays, journals are beginning to publish some articles online ahead of their print edition.  Don Kennedy of Science said that this trend was likely to continue, and that the media might soon be receiving science information in “driblets,” rather than the nice packages they are accustomed to.  This could put science journalists in the position of scrambling to put a story together, perhaps even leaving out important pieces of the puzzle. 

Scientists, after all, are not easy creatures to catch hold of. They are rarely in their offices, more likely to be found lurking in the back of a committee meeting, lecturing to undergrads, or perhaps even looking over their graduate students’ shoulders.  I can only imagine working on a deadline, trying to get ahold of an expert to provide you with some context or an explanation on a difficult topic.

It’s not necessarily about being first, though.  Alfred Hermida pointed out that even if a story has already been reported, a thoughtful analysis will always add value.  The addition of expert voices and context will be a welcome explanation to those readers whose interest was aroused by the initial short news stories on a newly released paper. 

Perhaps, in an ideal world, science journalists could specialize further, and really get to know what they are talking about in a specific field.  Trying to know everything about science is like trying to know every word in a dictionary.  If a writer already has a good understanding of the context in their field, they can put a new finding into perspective more easily.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

This blog was written by prominent science journalists and science communicators who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Best Practices: Covering Science in Cyberspace seminar.

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