“Jonathan Harris’ magical new media projects redefine storytelling” from PopTech. The entire video, which I recommend highly, is available here.
Registration for ONA ’11 has just opened, and that means it must be time for me to write about my takeaways from ONA ’10.
Today I ran into AP videographer Yvonne Leow at a Phoenix coffee shop, and during a passionate conversation about the future of news, she asked me who my inspiration in journalism was. There was really only one possible answer: Jonathan Harris.
In a way, I couldn’t possibly have written this post any earlier, because for the past six months I’ve been internalizing ONA ’10, most importantly Harris’ keynote.
Harris is my hero. If you’re looking for inspiration, there is none better. (I unfortunately cannot find his ONA ’10 keynote video, but I’ve embedded an excellent video from 2008 in which he talks about storytelling platforms as a way to share our experiences. Hint: Avoid the omniscient narrator. The entire 20-minute video is available here.)
He is an artist, not a journalist, but he is a storyteller.
I pulled up his site to show Yvonne some of the things he had done (unfortunately, Chrome doesn’t seem to like his projects very much). She agreed that they were cool, but asked me what I thought journalism could possibly do with them.
And it’s a fair question. Harris’ projects tend toward the avant-garde, are often difficult to navigate and understand at first glance, and can be overwhelming. But that’s because, first of all, he’s an artist and being avant-garde is all right. And secondly, he’s handling huge amounts of information. His online dating visualization, “I Want You to Want Me,” comprises thousands, if not millions, of online dating profiles.
But I think Harris’ approach is one that news should experiment with. We’ve lost the “multi” in “multimedia,” too often content to settle for a video or a graphic. His projects are true multimedia, engaging multiple senses while imparting information.
For instance, Harris’ We Feel Fine project maps people’s feelings. You can filter them by age, type of feeling, gender, and even weather. Now imagine the Arizona Republic adapting that idea to show how Arizonans feel about immigration.
Much better than the normal method of embedding a Twitter widget pulling the #immigration hashtag, eh? In one glance, you could see how an entire state feels about a controversial topic. (Granted, this is just the online population. With an issue like immigration, where the immigrants themselves don’t usually have a significant public online presence, these results would be a bit skewed.)
Harris’ Whale Hunt (caution: graphic material, though it isn’t immediately visible on the page) is another example of a format news organizations could adapt. In this project, Harris took thousands of photos during nine days he spent with an Alaskan Inuit village who every year kills a whale to keep their ecosystem going. You can view the photos in one of several ways, but my favorite includes a “heartbeat” graph. Harris took photos at five-minute intervals, but took them faster during moments of adrenaline rushes. This allows you to see Harris’ emotions over the span of the week. You can click anywhere on the graph to see the corresponding photos. Predictably, the chart spikes when the whale is killed and butchered.
What if a similar idea had been applied to election night 2008? A reporter on scene could have worn a pulse monitor (or, if that makes some journalists squeamish about injecting themselves in the story — a topic for another blog post at another time — an attendee waiting for results), removing the subjectiveness of using rate-of-photography. Photos, video, and text bites could have been mapped to the heartbeat. The emotions associated with that night on both the winning and losing sides made up the story. This is just another way of emphasizing it.
Some of this sort of innovation emerges in journalism once in a while, like Amanda Cox’s New York Times “Olympic Musical” infographic. It maps Olympic results audibly, driving home the fractions of a second separating winners and losers.
A moment of reality: Yes, the technical threshold for these projects is very high. The time required to make them is great. These are not reasons to avoid pursuing them. We should instead ask how we can reshape news to have room and resources for creating them.
Like a filter in Photoshop, these graphics emphasize parts of reality and fade out others.
Also like a filter in Photoshop, news organizations seem to largely be terrified of interpreting the human experience in any but the most cut-and-dried way. Newsflash: You filter reality any time you select quotes or decide which story to cover. It is unavoidable, and we should stop pretending that we don’t do it. Becoming aware that we do it will allow us to represent reality more effectively, not less. These sorts of creative graphics give people a new take on subjects they are familiar with already, create empathy and understanding for communities totally unlike their own, and help them (and us) understand the true impact of events.
Isn’t that what journalistic storytelling is supposed to be?