Digital Storytelling to Support Connective Journalism

Journalism serves many roles in society – informative, investigative, normative, and more. As the tools and pratices of interactive digital storytelling continue to grow, how can they help the connective role journalism plays in society? Read on for some background and a recent experiment I did in creating a digital story focused on building community connections.

The Roles of Journalism

Communciaton scholars often talk about the differing role communcaiton plays in society. Media critic and journalist James Carey is credited with a popular distinction, which teases out the idea of communciaton as transmission and ritual. The latter thinks about how communication plays a role in social interaction and construction of community. Journalism certianly plays the informative role, but also the serves what Carey would call ritualistic functions. 

Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis argues that community in fact means connecting people intimately over time. His definition of journalism centers on “conveneing communities” to build share understanding and world views. Journalism functions as a form of civic participationincreasing people’s feeling of community and willingness to participate in that community. The decline of local news in the US has demonstrated this; people’s sense of community, involvement, and pride decreases as local news sources dissapear. We need more journlaism focused on community-building role. 

From a lens of community connectivity, the digital transformations of the last 30 years have created gains and losses. Take classified sections as an exmaple. Most discussions of the migration of classified ads from digital news sites to Craigslist focus on the massive loss of revenue, but with this ritual role in mind it can also be thought about as a loss of community connection. Browsing the classifieds, and posting a listing, instilled a sense of belonging; one associated with the individual and the community but also with the newspaper that hosted it. The news organization often was central to the relationship between the self and the place.  Losing classified ads was a blow to the connective role news organizations played. Taken more broadly though, digital storytelling created new ways to discover your place and community as a reader. Consider browsable maps or databases of local businesses as an example. In addition (the early days of) comments and citizen journalism created new digitally-mediated ways to build that sense of community via a news provider’s website.

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Scholars Dr. Regina Marchi and Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark offered the idea of “connective journalism” to get at the new ways that role plays out in the diverse media landscape of online news and social media. Sharing links, liking them, reposting them – these are ways people engage with one another that build connective tissue in journalistic ways. That mediates a sense of self and relation to a larger community, especially for marginalized groups like youth. Digital news interactives can be crafted to specifically try and build community connectivity in ways inspired by that work.

Building an Example

So what about a broader application of this idea of building for community connectedness? How can we more intentionally use digital storytelling to support the connective role of journalism? I decided to explore this by piggybacking on the attention to the men’s FIFA World Cup late last year.

The tournament, held in Qatar, was widely criticized for labor issues, gender rights issues, and overall corruption. However, it is still the largest sporting event on our planet, commanding massive amounts of media and popular attention. Rather than further reinforcing this flow of attention and money into FIFA’s pocket, I decided to try something different. I built a digital story to connect readers with local immigrant fans and their cultures.

Screenshot from the Our Cup interactive.

Our Cup uses the reader’s rough location and census data to discover the largest three local immigrant communities from countries competing in the World Cup. I was able to precompute this data for every county in the US via the Census ACS “foreign born population” data. I manually curated a set of information for each country that I thought might be “culturally relevant” – things that might connect a reader to that community and their culture. Specifically the country links to:

  • Local restaurants service country’s cuisine, sourced from Yelp
  • Recipes from the country you can make at home, sourced from Yummly
  • Background about the country, via Wikipedia
  • A few playlists on Spotify, via Every Noise at Once
  • A team guide, which The Guardian sourced from local journalists
  • A heat map of where in the US immigrants from that country live
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The goal here is to give readers who might not know about local immigrant populations a chance to learn about them via the media event that is the World Cup. The links push from the sport story to a connective goal, from awareness of the local immigrant communities to direct or indirect engagement with them.

More Experiments Needed

This piece served as a “thing to think with” for me, a chance to explore what a digital story that is built with connective journalistic goals in mind could look like. Is it a success? In one way it is, because it helped me think this question through. In another way I can’t really tell, because I didn’t do the qualitative work to talk to readers about their perceptions before and after. In yet another way it isn’t a success, because it is a bit of a toy. That is all right with me, because I learn best by playing with toys.

I’ll keep looking for other people playing in this space, and the toys they are building. Hopefully we can continue to innovate how and why we build digital stories. There’s more to explore, and we need to think harder, in order to flesh out how approaches to digital storytelilng can support the important connective role journalism plays.

Thanks to my colleague Fernando Bermejo for advice on an early draft of this piece.

Rahul Bhargava

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