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 12, 2007

Web Cred

In the first session of the afternoon, Larry Gonick brought up the idea of credibility, and how web sites get it. People tend to trust people around them, and the people that those people trust. He suggested that participation by journalists (or scientists) in popular sites like MySpace or Facebook could lend credibility to scientific arguments in circles where such ideas are not usually be debated.

This is a very appealing idea. One imagines the causally curious public being convinced by eloquent arguments from distinguished PhDs or lauded science writers. The multitudes then share these arguments with their friends and start grass-roots movements to enact policies that will stop global warming, fund more science, and save the world.

But such forums are a double-edged sword for scientists and serious writers. Arguing on MySpace would pit them against all manner of rabble. If they resorted to the kind of forceful, direct language that would win arguments in a lay audience, they’d lose professional credibility. If they stuck with exactly accurate, qualified, and respectful terms, they wouldn’t convince a public accustomed to political pundits’ ad hominem attacks.

Still, it’s at least amusing to imagine real professionals dropping their scientific / journalistic gloves and bare-knuckling it in the trenches (“You moron! Do you even know where milk comes from?!?”)

And more seriously, MySpace and similar sites may provide a real opportunity to speak to an audience that doesn’t read the New York Times science section.


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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