A New Kind of News?

posted on: October 13, 2011

During most of the traditional journalism era, reporters would collect information and facts, somebody else or the same person would write the article, an editor would correct a few things and maybe ask for more details and then the news would be out for the masses to consume it.

In the the last few years, new technology tools have enabled what came to be called “citizen journalism”. Anybody with the will and access to some gadgets and a regular internet connection, can now report what they see and share it with others. Depending on how good the skills and materials of the person are, their audience can be as big or bigger than the average mainstream media. Popularity is not limited anymore by the access to media such as print press, a TV channel or radio station. Anybody (mostly) can have a voice.

Some organizations in the traditional world of media have leveraged this new trend by using materials contributed by citizens and having them be their ‘eyes’ in the scene. The process of curation, verification and edition is still in the hands of the organization.

At the same time, several tools have allowed groups of citizens to collaborate and contribute to a repository of information, be it opinions, reports of violence or issues they’ve seen, quantitative data, etc. but still, the process of curation, verification/validation and editing is done by a 3rd party, be it a single individual or a group or people.

In both scenarios, only the collection of information has been decentralized and distributed. The true act of making meaning and understanding what’s going on, is still a process that takes place in a controlled and centralized environment.

Think about the typical process for reporting a story or an ongoing event. There is a team of reporters, some stringers, maybe a few informants. Then there’s the journalist that collects all the pieces and puts the story together and the editor that ask for clarifications or further details and then the process of dissemination of the news. Now think about how would it be if everybody in that team could switch their roles as often as they want, the journalist could be informant, the stringer an editor and the editor a reader. Take it even further, think about all of them doing all of that at the same time. Now suppose they don’t work in the same building, maybe they don’t even know each other. And now imagine they are all in different places, some are in the field, others in a office, some have access to mainstream news, others are disconnected from it but participating in the event in real time.

How would it be to have the complete act of journalism distributed among whoever wants to participate?

But even more important, could they possibly come up with a story that made sense?

Around 1910 the cubism movement thought there was something wrong with the way everybody was painting. Things were represented from a single perspective, the truth that was being transferred to the canvas was only capturing one side of the reality. It was fractional by design, incomplete by definition and ontologically false as a conclusion.

 Juan GrisMann im Café, 1914.

Cubist painters, attempted to present objects by condensing all the perspectives at the same time. A story goes, they would have a still life on top of a motorized sculpture turntable, each time the eye switched from the canvas to the object to capture a facet, a different perspective was presented to the artist.

I believe that something similar can be done with journalism. I think that that not only the reporting work can be distributed, but the whole act of creation, curation, validation, verification and edition can be decentralized and set completely free of boundaries and roles. My opinion is that by de-structuring the process a much richer and complete picture could be formed and a more useful and truth story could arise.

How would this look like? How would a cacophony of everybody saying everything about anything at the same time be avoided?

First, we need to break the information reported in small bits or bites. It’s much more difficult for anybody to say they agree or disagree with a 3000 words article. There will be things that you agree on, others you might not be sure, and some you might fiercely oppose. If the fact you are confronted with is a short sentence, it’s much more easy to define where you stand with respect to it. Plus, you don’t run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Here’s where the hip 140-characters information bits come in handy. If the whole story is composed out of 140-characters-long pieces, the process of refuting, discussing, confronting, denying or confirming parts of the story becomes much more manageable. And distributable.

Now let’s say there are ways that those pieces can be related to each other. Causality could be one relation, correlation could be other. Other connections between those pieces could expand on any axes of the information contained, such as who, why, when, where, etc.

A wide number of channels to report information abound: anybody with access to the internet through a computer or a mobile device, or a text-message enabled phone could contribute with bits of information.

Let’s add now a system on the reception side of this process that basically acts as the aggregator and information conduit of these information bites. If somebody reports something in Lima, Perú, the system will send it to other users in the same region and ask them to confirm it, deny it or expand on it. The system could help anybody reporting in the field through text-messages to create the nodes of information pieces by expanding in the desired axes. A dialog between the citizen and the system could go like this:

Citizen: “There are shootings going on in Lima”,
System: “Do you know when it started?”
Citizen: “12:35 am”
System: “Do you know what caused it?”
Citizen: “Police trying to crack down on a drug deposit”

Or the citizen could proactively submit different connected bits without the dialog with the system. Or he could simply submit unconnected information bits and others could help relate those. There are a number of design alternatives that need to be analyzed.

Anybody interested in a specific region or topic could be subscribed and be notified when new bits are reported. He could participate in the story creation by adding other information bits, refuting some of the reported bit or creating new relationships among the different nodes that compose the story.

As the cubist turntable, the system would act as a “perspective turntable”, making sure everybody has a voice in the story elicitation process, and that all angles, conflicting opinions, facts, dates and places are combined and linked in a network that can be easily navigated by people trying to understand the story.

This is by no means a replacement of a well-written, carefully researched, coherent narrative. On the contrary, it empowers that process, by unleashing the potential for anybody to have access to a much richer and complete network of information pieces on which to build their own version of reality.

The premise is that any story is made of small parts than are related by different semantic connectors and that people have a much easier job having a determined and specific opinion on small bits of information. The design of a system that would allow this distributed network of participants to create this graph of information bites is the task ahead.

We have some ideas on how this could be done, and we want to involve others to contribute and work with us in exploring such a possibility.

For this purpose, we submitted an entry to an Ashoka Changemakers competition. Come on board, comment on it, contribute your ideas, get in touch and help us create a much more transparent, decentralized and holistic approach to journalism.

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