Essential elements of the branded explainer

3 Oct

I wrote my first research paper in sixth grade. My English class spent an entire marking period learning how to do research, taking field trips to the library and carefully writing down bibliographical details on index cards. I vividly remember sitting in class as our teacher demonstrated how to make an outline: I can still see Mrs. Salbo printing bright letters on a transparency sheet, revealing the magic of organization to my classmates and me as her color-coded example beamed over our heads onto the blackboard via an overhead projector.

I’ve outlined every paper that I’ve written since, from seventh grade to graduate school.

Defining what we’re going to take responsibility for as we create the branded explainer is hugely important. Of course, we need to set clear parameters for our project… but, on a personal level, I need my outline to really grasp what we’re planning to accomplish. What’s below may not be a complete outline, and it certainly doesn’t pretend to encompass every element necessary for making this a success, but it’s a start. (Take note: I’ve italicized and colored the specific elements that I think we should take responsibility for developing.)

I. Establishing what an explainer is

A. In contrast to the typical journalistic production of news, in which articles/videos/interactives are continually created based on breaking news, our aim is to produce journalism that allows users to understand a subject fully. Instead of creating tiny updates without context, our goal is to provide in-depth explanatory reporting. In essence, this project allows for a re-examination of “who, what, when, where, why and how,” both by enabling journalists to ensure that they are actually informing the public, and by empowering users to connect with and grasp the news available to them.

1. We need a tool for determining demand for explainers.

a. Editorial judgment is currently a big part of the process of determining what is produced by journalistic entities. I can think of no reason why it shouldn’t continue to be part of that process. Journalists don’t live in a vacuum; we are aware of what’s happening around us, of what’s confusing us or our friends and family, et cetera. Our insight is valid, valuable and, sometimes, respected.

b. Search data is also key here. It would be foolish of us to not use technology to our advantage. Understanding the statistics of what’s being looked for online has to be a big part of how the topic for an explainer is decided upon: If our goal is to explain things, then we need to know what people want explained. The branded explainer concept defies the traditional work-flow in newsrooms, after all. If we’re not going to continue to publish update after update out of context, then we also shouldn’t continue to create work based on what sells. Journalists are supposed to assist in the creation of an “informed and engaged public,” as Jay says. Let’s give that a try.

i. ProPublica admitted that this is an area that they struggle with. Their keywords aren’t being utilized, and it’s unclear what’s flying under the radar as a result. It’s our responsibility, as partners in this project, to help them address this area of weakness.

ii. As innovators, we ought to strive to develop this aspect of finding and delivering stories to users. What do people want and need to know? Finding new and useful ways to determine this is important. Sure, bloggers and bigger publications alike use tools like Google Analytics, and, of course, new media journalists are focused on unique site visits and page-views. But I think — though I’ll admit that my skill level as a tech geek is low — that we can do more.

2. We need a system of organization.

a. ProPublica explained that our explainers should be portable, and it’s almost a given that we’re creating a packaged project as a final result. How are we going to do this, practically speaking? What is this package going to be? Haphazardly compiling tools as we see fit for each explainer won’t make packaging and distributing our final products easy. Not having some kind of game plan also won’t make creating these explainers very straightforward, and it won’t make understanding them as a user simple, either.

i. I find ProPublica’s site to be somewhat disorganized. In fact, they  struggled to find the projects that they wanted to reference when we met because navigating their site is not an easy feat. I know, they explained that research says readers don’t care about differentiating between types of stories — and I respect such research, I do — but we can’t expect people to find our explainers very palatable if it’s unclear how to navigate through them or, even worse, how to find them at all. The point of this is to help users become less confused, right?

ii. Fleshing out the concept of packaging content and making it portable for outside use, we need to have clearly defined terms of what each explainer contains. This will vary from explainer to explainer, based on the multimedia components that are deemed best for each subject. Still, a basic organization is really necessary. Perhaps we’ll want to choose one of the story templates that ProPublica uses in their CMS and stick with its basic layout and style?

II. The execution of the explainer

A. Having established the basic parameters of what we’re making — we want to explain _____, based on demand and editorial judgment, and we’re going to create it within the confines of our established organizational rules and style — we need to actually go about the creation of the explainer.

1. This requires extensive research. As an explanatory journalistic enterprise, research is obviously one of the cornerstones of our project.

a. This might ultimately involve several “tools.” We may decide that a researcher’s recipe is a logical continuation of ProPublica’s reporting recipe. We may want to link ongoing research with interactive elements, whether that means improving on the concept of a constantly updated widget, or allowing for researchers and reporters’ notes to become more or less open to the public.

b. This requires more discussion, not only because it so vast, but also because it is essentially the backbone of this project. An element of our project has to describe, clearly, how we plan to execute the research behind our new-found interpretation of explanatory journalism.

2. We need a tool for gathering, organizing, assisting, and/or learning from users.

a. From a journalistic standpoint, this is essential in terms of gathering more sources (or, from ProPublica’s stance, victims) in order to fully address the breadth  of the subject being explained. Knowing the full extent of who has been involved in, say, the Gulf oil spill is vital, both in terms of explaining the situation to outsiders, and in terms of serving those who need attention and aid on the inside. This is our job as journalists and it is a big part of ProPublica’s mission.

b. Secondly, gathering information on who has been involved in a giant news topic can lead to further coverage. This is part of the essence of our project: once people have a subject explained to them, they can be more engaged with it. Plus, ProPublica already has a laudable history of doing this, with projects like its Reporting Matchmaker. We ought to continue this approach and develop it, in order to serve ProPublica best.

c. The web allows for user interaction, engagement and involvement in the production of news in entirely new ways. Why shouldn’t we crowd-source data? Why shouldn’t we collect Flickr photos, live tweets, home video footage, and/or personal stories? Think how much more powerful and in-depth the understanding of Hurricane Katrina would be if we not only reached out to people affected by the storm (see above), but also curated their information…This needs further development and innovation; this aspect of utilizing social media will vary based on the subject of each explainer. But it’s important.

3. We need the tools to create the various multimedia aspects of an explainer.

a. Everyone learns a little differently. Each subject is best explained in slightly different ways. We’ll need different tools to deploy for these explainers, based on what is needed (whether an interactive timeline seems to be in demand based on search results, or we simply judge that using a timeline would be the best way to tell the story at hand). I think it might serve our users and partners best if we have a toolbox, so to speak. There ought to be a clearly defined arsenal of what we’re capable of, whether that includes video, audio, photo, text, interactives… We need to know what we’re agreeing to as possibilities, and ProPublica needs to know what they may be hosting on their site. We need to define the multimedia aspect of this project, beyond simply saying that we’ll explain each subject in a multimedia way.

b. Of course, developing new possibilities and being flexible is key; we should be able to add something else to this toolbox as we like.

III. Afterward…

I’m actually not sure that this aspect of the project is clear enough in my mind for me to outline it yet. Once we’ve created an explainer, we’ll need to see if it was successful, theoretically. How will we use that information to amend future explainers? ProPublica put a big emphasis on making these explainers portable – do we need to create a game plan in the event that an explainer gets picked up by a media entity with a different style or approach? How would this aspect factor into our project? And what happens further down the line? We’ve defined this project as continuing through to May, or the end of our Studio 2 course, but The LEV is being maintained and continued long after the spring of 2010. Is ProPublica going to continue to use what we learn and to create explainers? Will Studio 20 continue to do the research and work behind the creation of new explainers?… In essence, what is the long-term impact of our branded explainer project supposed to be?

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Top Five Interesting Ethics Codes for New Media

26 Sep

“Interesting” can be a bit of a loaded word. Too often, it’s used when someone can’t think of anything more specific, or nicer, to say about the subject in question. Merriam-Webster says something that’s “interesting” is supposed to hold my attention… Still, I’m not sure that classics like “That’s an interesting outfit you’re wearing” convey an appropriately positive interpretation of this adjective.

I set out to find new media ethics codes that defy the way that “interesting” is used all too often today. The list below contains new media guidelines that earned my respect; these are the codes that stood out from the rest of my Google search in a good way. These are the guidelines that caused me to wonder, “Why didn’t anyone else say that?” or “Why haven’t I thought about ___ this way before?” These are the new media ethics codes that made me go “Hmm,” “Wow,” and/or “Huh?” I hope that they’ll hold your attention, too.

  1. NPR’s Social Media Guidelines – NPR won me over, once again, with their clear, intelligent wording. Their social media guidelines tell us, point-blank, why they exist. I’m a journalist; it’s my job to figure out why something is important, and I respect such disclosure immensely when I find it. Also, some of my fellow journalists feel that their actions, both on- and off-line, are harshly restricted by such codes… At least these guidelines offer some explanation, instead of a generic paragraph about how the times are a-changin’ and a list of rules on appropriate Facebook behavior. “The line between private and public activity has been blurred by these tools, which is why we are providing guidance now.” Thank you, NPR.
  2. The Food Blog Code of Ethics – I’m a big reader of food blogs, but that’s not why this code made the list. These guidelines were written by food bloggers who wanted an ethics code, but “couldn’t find any that already existed.” I love the initiative that they took. I love that they defied the stereotype of bloggers not being “real reporters” by holding themselves to high standards regardless of their medium. I love that these girls didn’t expect anyone else to follow along, and, perhaps most of all, I love how many people talked and blogged and buzzed about their ethics code anyway. This is one example of how social media can create fascinating conversations and can make for better journalism in the long run. So much for the Internet making us stupid.
  3. RTDNA’s Social Media and Blogging GuidelinesThese guidelines truly embody the spirit of social media: They not only provide a set of standards, but also pose questions and encourage discussion in the newsroom about various ethical dilemmas. RTDNA’s guidelines follow the same basic principles as many others — be accurate, be fair — but the approach of encouraging those responsible for following such guidelines to discuss them is wonderfully different. Instead of jokingly telling newcomers not to be a jerk, or that plagiarism is bad, we should discuss what it means to be a good reporter. We ought to acknowledge that new media might mean new ways of operating as journalists, and we ought to talk about it.
  4. Reuters’ guidelines, “Reporting from the internet – For big news organizations, social media guidelines are usually an addendum to an original code of ethics. Given that this is new media we’re talking about, not the centuries-old medium of print, that makes sense. Still, I appreciate how Reuters’ guide to online reportage begins with the basics, the ethical approaches and moral guidelines that shouldn’t vary depending on a reporter’s medium. These guidelines for using social media (with, I’ll admit, a bit of an odd focus on Twitter) have a clear mindset: Honesty is the guiding principle. Some might disagree with the stance on Wikipedia in this code of conduct, but I respect Reuters’ insistence that the online encyclopedia shouldn’t be used as a source because it falls in line with the entire statement’s focus on truthfulness and responsibility. Their mix of old and new is laudable.
  5. A Blogger’s Code of Ethics – This set of principles made my previous list of noteworthy ethics codes, too. I found many others — from big publications like the Los Angeles Times, and from other bloggers like Rebecca Blood — but I like this one too much to set it aside. It’s clear, concise, and focused on integrity and honesty; it treats bloggers with the same respect as more traditional reporters; it encourages discussion. Anyone publishing online can read it, understand it, and join the conversation about what it means to be a new media journalist. I also appreciate that it’s based on the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code. Both cyberjournalist.net’s respect for the world from whence online reportage came, and its insistence on making the future credible, appeal to me.

Top Five Ethics Codes for Journalists

19 Sep

I began writing for the teen section of my local newspaper, The Courier Post, in high school. If I was presented with an ethics code back in ninth grade, I don’t remember it. In college, my journalism course on ethics and First Amendment law was interesting, but very difficult; my memories of the semester are peppered with my classmates’ complaints about how unnecessary all of the information seemed. Out in the professional world, journalism ethics is frequently summarized, half-jokingly: “Plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it.”

This jaded approach to journalism ethics irks me. I became a journalist because I treasure people’s stories. I’m a writer because I relish words’ meaning and power. I’m a storyteller, I’m a communicator, I’m a reporter — and I take my craft seriously. “Plagiarism is bad” isn’t enough for me. Getting the facts right is essential, treating my subjects with respect is crucial, and thus, doing my work ethically and responsibly is paramount.

I went in search of ethics codes that reflect my take on journalism ethics. The following, in some shape or form, echo my concerns for journalistic responsibility and whet my craving for an in-depth understanding and appreciation for a journalist’s power.

  1. NPR’s Ethics CodeThis ethics code is, admittedly, not very dissimilar from many other journalistic entities’ lists of dos and don’ts. NPR’s opening statement, however, won me over: “We are always testing and questioning the credibility of others. We have to stand that test ourselves…” If only all journalistic undertakings began with such a clear, dedicated statement of purpose. If you’re going to agree to understanding various conflicts of interest and ethical conduct, you’d better start out by grasping why such things are so terribly important.
  2. ASNE’S Statement of Principles – This assemblage of journalism ethics is slightly old-school…but I think that’s why I like it. Its preamble, like NPR’s, sets an important tone for the rest of the piece; it also highlights the great, grave responsibility of the press. “The First Amendment, protecting freedom of expression from abridgment by any law, guarantees to the people through their press a constitutional right, and thereby places on newspaper people a particular responsibility,” it begins. The freedom of the press should not be taken lightly. It’s my job to go places and do things and share ideas that my readers (Users? Audience? Fellow community members?) cannot, to shed light on new perspectives as our world changes and evolves. That’s quite an undertaking, and ASNE seems to respect that.
  3. A Blogger’s Code of Ethics – This ethics code provides one approach to the drama about whether bloggers qualify as true journalists: Let’s hold bloggers to the same standards as professional journalists. The first paragraph of this code notes that not all bloggers consider themselves to be journalists, but I disagree with that mindset. If we’re all users, and if all of the information published on the web is going to be consumed by someone else in this giant virtual network, then all online publications have some level of equality. Consequently, I think both the New York Times‘ reporters and bloggers around the world are deserving of the same general respect and standards. This summer, former USDA official Shirley Sherrod lost her job over a blogger’s unethical excerpting of a video — it’s evident that bloggers need to be reminded of their impact and their need to minimize harm. No matter the medium, a journalist’s job is heavy with responsibility.
  4. ProPublica Code of Ethics – ProPublica’s unique approach to running a journalistic publication made me curious about what its code of ethics would be like. What I found impressed me greatly: “…While our entity is new, and our business model somewhat innovative, our ethics are neither.” Like the other entries on this list, ProPublica considers a journalist’s ethical and responsible behavior to be of the highest priority. My favorite part of this code, though, is the recurring statement: “When in doubt, ask.” If the essence of journalism ethics must be simmered down into a sentence, I prefer this one infinitely more than “Plagiarism is bad.” A journalist’s job is not to make her best guess about what’s right, but to keep searching until she finds the entire truth; a reporter’s responsibility is not to attempt not treating her sources horribly, but to ensure she is addressing her subjects fairly. Plus, I find that the tie-in between “When in doubt, ask” and ProPublica’s focus on investigative journalism nicely illustrates their dedication to their craft.
  5. BBC Editorial GuidelinesThe full pdf document of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines is over 200 pages! Brevity has its pluses, but I really love the in-depth approach that this ethics code takes. If a journalist wants an answer on how to behave ethically in practically any situation, from a volcanic eruption to a children’s television program, the BBC’s guidelines can help. The code recognizes the general journalistic philosophy of treating subjects fairly and not compromising standards, but it expands upon them greatly; it is hefty in order to drive home its point. I’ve read my fair share of journalism textbooks, and they tend to be dry, oversimplified, and, in a word, boring. The BBC’s code of ethics, however, is full of examples, explanations, and empathy for both its subjects and its audience. I used to think that the New York Times’ ethics policy was extensive (That ethics code deserves an honorable mention on this list. It was the first one that I was introduced to, so it’ll stick in my mind no matter how many other ethics codes I encounter.), but the BBC has redefined what it means to truly understand journalism ethics for me.

Homework in the realm of new media

15 Sep

Hello and welcome to the home of my assignments for Press Ethics of the Web. Here’s hoping that the dog never eats my homework, as the age-old excuse goes… MacBooks are expensive!