Archive for October 2008

Digital Storytelling and Time Travel

October 29, 2008

I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a film buff. Well I’d like to think I am, certainly after studying them for three years during my undergraduate English and Film Studies degree at Queens University, Belfast. 

During the course of my studies I managed to come across a very distinctive and powerful French film, which had such a profound effect on me, I’ve watched it over fifty times (and not just because I had to write an essay on it) and now cite it as being one of my favourite films of all time.

La Jetée is a short but powerful and moving film, by French director Chris Marker. Although only 28 minutes long, it is one of the most compelling films I have ever watched. It tells a haunting and provocative story through a series of black and white photographic still images and it is this unusual cinematic style that I think makes the film so memorable.


The inspiration behind Terry Gilliam‘s Twelve Monkeys, La Jetée is a science fiction film, delivered in a way which gives it the feel of a documentary. Its construction of entirely still photos, bar one brief shot originating on a motion-picture camera, gives it a shocking sense of realism.  It has no dialogue aside from some incoherent mutterings in German and the story is told entirely by voice-over.

For me, La Jetée didn’t need a big budget, A List actors or special effects to convey its message, and it was certainly a lot more entertaining than Twelve Monkeys was, Brad Pitt or no Brad Pitt.

Now what has this got to do with the (very enjoyable) JOMEC lecture delivered by Daniel Meadows on Digital Storytelling I hear you ask?

After watching some of the digital stories presented to us by Daniel, La Jetée immediately sprung to mind.

I realise a science fiction movie about a post-nuclear experiment in time travel has no similarities with a man and his teddy bear or a girlfriend with a shoe fetish. So what exactly made me immediately connect the two?

For me, it isn’t the subject matter that is important but the way the story is told and the effect it creates on the viewer. Although the digital storytelling concept is completely different to Marker’s movie, I believe both are powerful due to the way in which they have been made.

Digital Storytelling is all about real people, telling their real story to an audience who is willing to listen. It’s all about showing the human side to different aspects of our lives, loves, losses and everything else in between. We are able to perceive a different side to something we thought we knew, through the eyes of someone we probably don’t know.

In La Jetée, Marker ignores all the normal conventions of story telling and filmmaking. He takes the basic structures used in cinema and almost strips them bare, leaving them unadorned in a pure and simplistic form. It is through this technical style the message of the film is so haunting and provocative.

As I watched more and more of the digital stories, I realised this is also what was happening with them. Normal people are taking new and emerging tools and telling a story that is simple and stripped bare, helping people tell their personal stories in a compelling and emotionally engaging form. They don’t need actors, a plot line or indeed a fancy camera. Therefore what we get is a short, snappy but powerful story, which evokes the desired emotions and helps us feel a connection with the storyteller. Or at least that’s how I felt when I watched them. Their simplicity tugged at my heartstrings and will undoubtedly leave a lasting effect within me.


So Many Questions, So Few Traditional Journalists

October 23, 2008

Citizen journalism, User Generated Content, citizen media, grassroots media, crowd sourced journalism, networked journalism… am I the only one who thinks the online lectures are simply giving us a different term for the same concept week after week?

I could be wrong but it feels that someone, somewhere is forever coming up with another term for the public’s contribution to the news. Is there more than one way to skin a cat?

It would appear so as, this week, JOMEC students were yet again presented with another form of citizen journalism. Can we all put our hands together and give a big round of applause for (drum roll)… Networked Journalism – come on down!

According to Jeff Jarvis, networked journalism takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas and perspectives. All of this seems very familiar but what exactly are the differences between networked and citizen journalism?

At the Networked Journalism Summit in New York, Jarvis said, “Journalism can and must expand even as the institutions that do journalism shrink. The future is ‘pro-am journalism’, doing things together.” At the same summit, Charlie Beckett reiterated this, saying the idea of the professional and the amateur working together is the future; the war is over, we are all on the same side.

These men are hailing networked journalism as some kind of miracle for journalists, and indeed the public, everywhere. But is the war really over? In any war is anyone ever really happy? Do all sides emerge at the other end satisfied? Or are Jarvis and Beckett looking at this through their rose tinted glasses?

I find it hard to believe that all journalists will quite happily accept members of the public into their lives as easily as that. Jarvis cites the ‘shrinking journalism institutes’ of which we are all too aware. There are fewer and fewer journalism jobs out there and is this, in some small way, because of citizen journalism or networked journalism? Call me suspicious but I tend to think it might be.

I am not going to use this blog to completely criticise everything Jarvis/Beckett types believe in as, obviously, there are some merits to networked journalism, the biggest of these being crowdsourcing. The main merits of crowdsourcing are the low costs and high success rates of some outsourcing projects, the Fort Myers News-Press Hurricane Katrina strategy being an obvious example.

Others believe that crowdsourcing can be viewed almost as a form of human exploitation. Douglas Rushkoff is very outspoken with his views against crowdsourcing and its implications.

Advocates of networked journalism argue that it gives a journalist a means of doing something they couldn’t do themselves. But how effective is it? Does everyone involved produce news worthy stuff? Is everything they report accurate? How do we know if it is or not? Are there enough checks being carried out? So many questions… ones to which I do not have the answers.

Jay Rosen warned that only one per cent of any group of people who volunteer to get involved are truly creative and only 10 per cent produce anything journalistic. He said: “You can’t just open the floodgates and expect the public to produce. If there are too many people involved then it simply creates too much work for the journalist to make it worthwhile.” Is this a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth?

And another point: where are we supposed to find the time to do all of this this? If you look at Liverpool Daily Post journalist, Alison Gow’s Lifecycle of a News Story, her methods of writing news in Web 2.0 seem a lot more time consuming than the old fashioned way –  the one I most enjoy. What’s wrong with picking up the telephone or the good old fashioned meet and greet? Undoubtedly, that is the technophobe coming out in me again. Perhaps I am missing a huge part of the bigger picture. Perhaps one day it will all fall into place and perhaps it won’t.

More and more people are arguing that journalists must now aspire to more than just the manufacture of news. Charlie Beckett cites that we are no longer the privileged gate-keepers to information or the sole arbiters of editorial judgement. So what are we exactly? What is the media organisation and essentially, the journalists’ new job? Are we all merely sub-editors, connectors, facilitators or sifters of information?

I suspect I may have gravitated towards this profession for some of the wrong reasons. I like to be the one with the inside story; I like to be the one that brings this insider’s view to the masses (in my own unique style). And I like writing. I feel with all this new technology and media, traditional journalists or rather, journalists with traditional ideals, are being cheated.

The Rise of the Better and Faster Journalist

October 15, 2008

My Mystic Meg-like qualities enabled me to jump the gun a tad last week as I managed to blog on the very thing the lecture was about. So this week, rather than twisting my journalistic knife into this debate after already fully plunging it in, I thought I’d act as devil’s advocate and outline one of the (many) benefits of the citizen journalism cause.

Citizen journalism, or User Generated Content (UGC) is apparently not new. In fact it has been here for centuries, existing in forms such as political pamphleteers, video footage of the assassination of Kennedy and more recently the ‘Zine culture’.

As Dr Andy Williams said in his lecture, “This stuff is not that new”. And no matter what I, or any number of anti citizen journalists say or do, ‘this stuff’ is here to stay. In fact, ‘this stuff’ is deemed so vital and influential, Time Magazine featured UGC in its 2006 Person of the Year in which the person was ‘you’, due to the millions of people who contributed to user generated media. Yep the U in User Generated Content is certainly here to stay. So what makes ‘you’, the public, so great?

Simply put, I think citizen journalism makes journalists better at what they do. We now must get used to the fact we have to answer to a general public who may be challenging what we write or pointing out our mistakes. Often, they will be smarter than us, wittier than us, and more informed than us. But rather than feel threatened by this new, intimate relationship with our readers, we should use it as a way of perfecting our skills as journalists, improving accuracy, style and become more engaging, probing, dedicated reporters i.e. the days of the slack hack are well and truly OVER.

As John V. Pavlik outlines in his book Journalism and New Media, the traditional journalist, who is accustomed to serving in the role of omnipotent storyteller, must now face new challenges, as well as checks and balances. Sure, we may not like it but, as Pavlik points out, democracy can be better served by journalism transforming from a largely one-way discourse to a two-way dialogue responsive to the views and vision of the public.

Due to the wonder that is the World Wide Web, it is now just as easy for the public to get facts as it is for a journalist, thus a journalist must do more than just relay the facts. He must become a skilful storyteller with a global audience, outlining the relevant information yet placing it into a wider context. And today’s journalist has increasingly less time to do this as today’s news consumer wants their news right here, right now.

And back to that wise, old journalist AJ Liebling who said: “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

The point is, journalists must now write both better and faster and not only that, we must also respond to the views of the public as a way of serving democracy that little bit better. After all we are writing for the public, thus we must listen to the public.

Journalists everywhere rise; it’s time to get down from your ivory tower, hang up your crown and come down to face your public.

Would All Citizen Journalists Please Stand Up?

October 15, 2008

Apparently online journalism is the future. As soon as I heard this, I broke into a cold sweat, the technologically disabled wench that I am. I don’t like computers and they don’t like me. All I have to do is look at one and some kind of Y2k-esque malfunction generally ensues. Nevertheless, I have learned to tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that my handwriting isn’t what it used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete IT virgin. Like a lot of people, I have several email addresses, am a member of several social networking sites and surf the World Wide Web for more hours than I would care to admit. I even had a blog once, and it was here that I first came into contact with ‘citizen journalism’.

I didn’t realise what a big business blogging was until my previous editor enlisted me to (begrudgingly) write one. So, being the over-eager, unqualified journalist I was, I started to overly research them.

As I scoured pages and pages of both famous and unknown blogs I finally got the point. Online writers are the voice of everyone and the voice of no-one. They represent themselves and their opinions but are broadcasting to a potential audience of billions. Blogs almost provide a release of sorts for people, budding journalists and writers. At a time when the world has forgotten how to write long-hand and the death knell of snail mail rapidly approaches, the online forum is another extension of what it means to take pleasure in writing – writing for writing’s sake – reviews, recipes, diaries and opinions on news. This is also where the hacks of the future will undoubtedly sharpen and cut their teeth.

As I went to work on my own blog, over which I was given free reign, I was sceptical as to whether or not anyone would actually read my rant. When I posted it, I was surprised to see that, not only were people reading it, but they were scrutinising and deliberating on every word, every fact, every spelling, every punctuation and even taking great delight in pointing out my shortcomings and inaccuracies (with a few personal comments thrown in for good measure!)


When our JOMEC online journalism lecturer Glyn Mottershead mentioned ‘citizen journalism’ in his lecture, I realised that not only have millions of people around the world switched to online journalism but they have also started to comment and challenge the sacred words’ of a journalist. If journalists are said to write the first draft of history, then it seems the public is the de facto editor who comes behind us with a big fat, red pen analysing and checking everything we do, essentially keeping tabs on the free press and consequently keeping us on our toes. But is it all worth it?


Writing about your recent backpacking adventure, posting your holiday snaps or recommending a new dish you’ve tried out is one thing. Now citizen journalism has gone to new levels. Not only are they challenging the words of the qualified, they are positioning themselves as writers of news.

What started off with groundbreaking photographs of natural disasters or acts of terrorism has now escalated to new heights. The general public is taking the news into their own hands and although I can see how useful it can be, alarm bells are also ringing in my head. Where are the checks and balances? Who is there to challenge what they have written? Where is the fact verification or journalistic integrity?

Whereas qualified journalists have spent a lot of time, money and hard graft getting to that newsroom, Joe Bloggs off the street comes along and can publish anything he wants. Am I the only one who feels cheated by this?

Even if no-one reads it, that potential still exists. A professional, contracted reporter working for a local newspaper has no such remit. But who is better off? The writer without constraints or the person getting paid for his or her troubles?

A recent example of how dangerous citizen journalism has the potential to be is from CNN’s user generated news site Their slogan “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” says it all. Any member of the public is allowed to publish a story, provided they supply an email address.

Last week, one lone, fraudulent internet story affected the market value of one of the most powerful and largely recognised companies in the world. The story of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s supposed heart attack seen the company’s shares fall by nine percent in 12 minutes within an hour after the story was published.

Now what does that say to you about the impact of citizen journalism? Not everyone deliberately prints untruths but the point is they can, all at the click of a mouse.

A.J Liebling once famously said, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” Nowadays everyone can bring the news to the masses, all they need is access to a computer. How scary is that?

Citizen journalists are everywhere. They live in your town, they lurk on your street, they may even live in your house. In fact, as the Lotto is fond of saying, “It could (even) be you.”