Sunday, 26 October 2008

Digital Storytelling: Life Through the Lens

I have been a bit wary about online/interactive journalism over the last few weeks. But Daniel Meadows’ discussion of digital storytelling turned several of my assumptions on their head.

He began by talking about media literacy. Ofcom made this a priority in 2003, but my reservations expressed here have centred on the notion that citizen journalism enthusiasts are getting way ahead of themselves and I thought I was about to be vindicated when Daniel said one in five adults are illiterate/innumerate. But he pointed out that with digital story telling, this doesn’t matter. We might be running before we can walk, but this is a whole new way to get from A to B. Teaching communities how to create a digital story allows the most basic barriers to journalism (and many other professions) to be broken down so we can hear the stories behind the news.

Luciana Padilla’s digital story is a great example of this. Looking at her life as a Peruvian immigrant in the US, she provides a real, human window into issues we often understand through statistics. Big hitting subjects like sexuality, immigration and economics are all covered here, but in a way which conveys the real human cost.
So people make news, and digital stories humanise it, but are they news? They feel like a feature, an after-school special for the real substance of news. But this is another assumption which needs questioning; in a world where the public can make and break a story, Daniel asked what our vision for journalism is and I'm warming to this holistic approach to news. The stories behind the story. The public telling us when we’re getting it wrong. Journalists are privileged in the access they have to the people who make up news, and initiatives such as Capture Wales or its English equivalent, BBC’s Telling Lives can bridge the gap between a news ‘issue’ and its reality.
On Friday the BBC ran a day of interactive events asking “How is the economic downturn affecting you?” Despite the apocalyptic forecast given by news outlets over the last couple of months, people’s individual stories varied dramatically. An interactive map showed a large percentage of people had “improved finances” with comments like “Is there a downturn?” (Gert Berden) and “Its still looking rosy” (Adrian Riley). Although this particular topic may not lend itself particularly well to digital storytelling, it demonstrates the disjuncture that can occur between news and the individuals living it, and the void that methods like digital storytelling can fill.
But if people can tell their own stories, do journalists still have a job? This is coming up time and time again. Both Daniel and Barrie Stephenson say yes. Stephenson says that journalists have always been part of “community service”. The difference is now we can actually see and hear the community. In slightly starker terms, Daniel asks what would you rather be; predator or collaborator? Given the diabolical levels of public trust for journalists, the former clearly isn’t working for us.
It's not citizen or interactive or networked journalism that threatens this trade. It's a refusal to accept that change is good.

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