«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
The Internet is suited to such a reporting process, providing a limitless news hole. Like immediacy, this is a characteristic of the Internet that fits with some existing newsroom norms but departs from others. The amount of content a news provider needs over the course of a publishing cycle is finite for newspapers, television, and radio. The Web, in theory, provides limitless space for content, freeing reporters from the temporal and spatial tyranny of the news hole. In practice, however, online space has been used largely as a repository for what has already been edited for print or broadcast (Paul, 2005). As newspapers shrink in size, editors may consider publishing online those science stories that did not make the cut for print.
This is a tempting solution, especially as science stories are being squeezed out of traditional media outlets because of the dwindling number of weekly science sections, staff cutbacks, or the trend toward more consumer-oriented, lifestyle features (Russell, 2007). But it would be simplistic to consider the Internet as a repository for extraneous content. Much of the discourse about online journalism centers around the idea of repurposing news content from one 82 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA medium to another (Wendland, 2002; Kolodzy, 2006). But a two-thousandword science article written for print does not transfer well to the Web, just as a TV script makes for a poor newspaper article. Instead, journalists should conceive of a story in ways that would play to the strengths of each medium.
This effort goes beyond introducing multimedia to a story. Online journalism is characterized by the ability to use multiple media to provide varying textures, combining elements from print—text and graphics—with those of broadcast: sound, music, and video. The mere presence of different media in a story, however, does not by itself create a multimedia story. A multimedia story involves a combination of text, still photographs, video clips, audio, graphics, and interactivity that makes each medium complementary, not redundant (Stevens, n.d.). For reporters, striving to avoid redundancy in an online multimedia story entails deconstructing a story into its main elements and considering the most appropriate combination of media.
Furthermore, online journalism creates a nonlinear environment that breaks significantly with traditional journalism. A print story or radio broadcast guides the audience through a linear narrative; a reader or listener can dip in and out, but they have little control over the flow of information. The hyperlinked nature of the Web makes nonlinear consumption of news more likely (Ward, 2002; Foust, 2005). Information can be constructed and displayed as related components linked together, with multiple navigation pathways and links encouraging audiences to explore multiple threads of a story.
The nonlinear nature of the Internet asks journalists to consider that audiences can construct their own narrative, with no set beginning, middle, or end. As a result, each element of a multimedia story must be understood as an entry point to a story. This freedom of choice could be an especially challenging reality for complex science stories. In a traditional, lengthy print article, a reporter attempts to guide the reader, adding layers of complexity along the story’s path. Online, a reader may jump straight into the deep end.
The answer may be the Internet itself. After all, it stores a wealth of information that can be retrieved at the click of a mouse. The vastness of the Internet and the extent of information available may intimidate audiences and cause information overload (Hall, 2001). There are also concerns about the credibility of online sources and questions about the ability of audiences to make sense of the bewildering range of scientific information on the Internet. According to some studies, only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are able to understand basic scientific concepts (Dean, 2005). Yet at the same time, the tools for searching and retrieving online data have been constantly improving, and research shows that many Americans are using the Internet to check the reliability of science news (Horrigan, 2006).
At play here is less the reliability of information online and more so the shift of power from the journalist to the audience. The Internet allows the audience to have greater control over information, in terms of where they get the news, when they get the news, and how they get the news. Online audiences
RE VI TA L I ZI NG S C I E NC E J OU RN ALISM F O R A D IG ITAL AG E 83are often couched as “users” to distinguish them from “readers,” “listeners,” and “viewers,” terms that reflect more passive activities (Ward, 2002). The interactive nature of the Internet gives the user the power to control the communication flow or even to alter a journalist’s original message.
Interactivity is an elusive term, with meanings that can range from providing a set of links to facilitating direct interaction with other users and/or journalists. However defined, the intrinsic interactivity of the Internet offers the public unparalleled opportunities to take an active part in the creation, dissemination, and discussion of news. Mainstream news organizations are increasingly exploring the idea of news as a conversation with the audience, offering more ways for readers to participate, such as allowing comments on stories or soliciting photos and videos from the public (Hermida & Thurman, 2008).
How much of its Web presence to open up to an audience is a dilemma for news outlets. Science news is based on expert opinion, rather than amateur bloviation (Deuze, 2003). However, if science journalists were to move away from the “we write, you read” dogma of modern journalism, they could potentially have access to hundreds of thousands of experts. At the same time, undermining that dogma could open the door to misinformed commentary on the major scientific issues of the day.
Issues surrounding the credibility of audience contribution are not unique to science journalism. Mainstream news outlets face the challenge, too, as they shift toward a model of greater engagement and participation with the public, considering ways of tapping into the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki,
2004) while avoiding the pitfalls of mob rule. The task for journalists is to find ways of encouraging participation that add value, rather than devalue, science reporting. Perhaps a reader’s exact comment online is less important than the fact that they are taking part in a discussion and demonstrating an active interest in a scientific issue. The self-correcting nature of the Internet also means that users tend to respond to each other and point out mistakes.
Providing more opportunities for user participation could have long-term benefits, as it could foster increased public engagement with science.
Blogging, in particular, is being used to engage with audiences in new ways. Blogs have been portrayed as an interactive communications technology that could create a conversation between journalists and audiences (Gillmor, 2003). The informal nature of blogs allows for a more conversational approach to science, as well as provides a platform to explore the process of science rather than just the published findings.
Science journalists who maintain blogs say feedback from readers is valuable.
For example, it helps to find out how completely people understood a particular story (Hermida, 2007a). For these journalists, blogging connects them with readers in a way that was not possible before the Internet. ScienceBlogs.com, which describes itself as “the largest online community dedicated to science,” is an example of how the blogging platform is being harnessed to foster diaS C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA logue online. And there are indications that blogs are starting to be recognized as a legitimate form of journalism. At the Online News Association annual conference in October 2007, five of the twenty awards went to blogs, among them blogs from the magazine Wired and the newspaper Florida Today.
Blogs are a platform native to the Web, and thus they share one of the defining characteristics of the Internet: the use of hyperlinks. The ability to create a network of ideas through the use of links, whether in blogs or other forms of online storytelling, marks a major departure from other forms of journalism. In traditional journalism formats, such as print or broadcast, the aim is to retain audiences, to keep them reading, listening, or watching. Links in online content invite audiences to explore further and construct their own narratives. Hyperlinks shift control to the audience and are part of the nonlinear nature of the Web.
Cumulatively, these factors create a new architecture for journalism. First, the existing model of packaging news into print or broadcast products is being undermined by a digital environment where information can be packaged differently and more effectively (Bradshaw, 2008). Second, the networked nature of information on the Web casts knowledge as a process and the news as a service, rather than a product.
These developments require a fundamental rethinking of established journalism practices. News outlets are now seen as hubs in a distributed network of information, rather than as destinations. In this global network, the emphasis has shifted from a model in which audiences come to a news outlet to one in which news outlets reach out to audiences. Deuze (2003) argues that journalism is moving from a closed culture focused on the production of editorial content to an open culture focused on connecting with audiences. As a result, news outlets are making their content as widely accessible as possible, through syndication, social bookmarking, or technologies such as RSS. This variety of available routes to the news is particularly important for science journalism, since happenstance plays a key role in how people stumble across science news online.
Horrigan (2006) found that two-thirds of Internet users in the United States encounter science news when they have gone online for other information.
Another key factor is convenience, cited by Americans as the main reason they go online for science news, as opposed to other factors, such as the reliability of information (Horrigan, 2006). By reaching out to audiences, news outlets create more opportunities for people to stumble across their content.
This move toward outreach was part of the strategy behind the Great Turtle Race website, a project led by journalist Jane Stevens for the Leatherback Trust and Conservation International, which set out to make the online content available for people to share as widely as possible (Hermida, 2007b).
Online journalism requires much more than repurposing content, adding multimedia to a story, and publishing it online; it involves a shift in thinking and journalistic culture. Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (2005) summed up
More than other media, such as television or newspapers, digital platforms can offer science journalism a greater diversity of coverage and voices. The multimedia, nonlinear, and networked nature of online journalism is forcing journalists to rethink storytelling for a digital age. For science journalists, the Web offers a multiplicity of ways to delve into complex issues. The participatory potential of the Internet offers the means to engage with audiences in ways that were unthinkable when those science writers came together in the 1930s to form a professional association. Today, the potential to reimagine and revitalize science journalism for a digital world is here.
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