This is a heavily edited version of an essay I wrote some time ago, which for some reason I’ve suddenly thought might be kinda relevant. While I’ve tried to chop out lots of boring bits, it’s still fairly dull, however there may be at least one or two interesting points hidden in there.
This analysis compares two different news accounts of the same event in order to determine how / whether each narrative’s features reflect and contribute to the shaping of norms, values and perspectives in relation to both news consumption and production. The narrative event is the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
The first account could be considered an example of ‘Traditional’ journalism and is taken from The New York Times (NYT), ‘Powerful Quake and Tsunami Devastate Northern Japan’, published on 11 March 2011. (Fackler, 2011) The second, an example of a ‘New Media’ news report taken from an online publication called Storyful, ‘Massive Earthquake Strikes Japan’, initiated on 11thMarch. (Storyful, 2011)
In this essay ‘Traditional’ media and journalism refers to those methods indicative of print based newspapers and television, along with their online incarnations. ‘New Media’ on the other hand refers to relatively recent web developments such as blogging, micro-blogging and social media networking, which are largely used as independent or self publishing platforms.
This essay will draw on the work of Allan Bell and William Labov (among others) in the analysis of the texts and identification of narratives in news reporting, however it will also consider the significance of modern or “new” literacy practices as they relate to journalistic practices, such as popular new media developments like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. (Lankshear and Knobel, 2007: 1-4)
Traditional versus New Media
The New York Times is a daily newspaper founded in 1851 and published in New York, in the United States. It is one of a number of publications falling under the ownership of The New York Times Company, with other publications including the International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe. The company defines its “core purpose” as “to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.” The paper launched its website in 1996 and in March 2011 began charging readers access that content. (The New York Times, 2011)
The New York Times like many newspapers across the world it is in a period of transition. It is not clear what the newspaper is transitioning into, but it clear that the traditional news media is heavily investing in an online presence. Bill Keller, the NYT editor described in a 2009 presentation how the parent company “has to be, a technology company as well as a journalism company.” (Keller quoted by NiemanJournalismLab, 2009) Keller also listed a number of challenges facing traditional newspapers, highlighting the need to integrate social media, to consider how content is presented in terms of “web first”, to make these concepts integral to the way the newsroom itself operates and, fundamentally, to make the article not simply a report on an event, but “an engine of engagement”, a door through which readers reach other content. These comments suggest a media which is facing continual challenges to keep up with technological advancements, requiring continual institutional and industry wide evolution.
Storyful, in contrast, calls itself “a newsroom for the social media age”,allowing users to “curate” the social media web. (Clinch, 2011) On the surface at least the application appears to simply facilitate easier creation of multimodel texts. (Lankshear and Knobel, 2007: 7) (Jaworski and Coupland, 2006: 25) Mark Little, founder of Storyful described in interview with the BBC how the traditional media have attempted to make use of the advent of social media and the plethora of information and data that has been produced by it. He says, while most people use technology and algorithms to find the useful information within the vast sea of data, Storyful argues that there is a need for a human layer of mediation to make this ‘data mining’ productive. (Little, 2011)
The Storyful ‘App’ or online application (which the creators call a “storybuilding tool”) provides the software for web users to create and share stories. Storyful stories can be thought of as narratives weaved of disparate texts (video, audio and text), created by different people, in different locations, in different time zones. These texts are integrated using the web tools to produce a news narrative. The stories can be compiled and uploaded from phones, laptops and computers – from any location with mobile or wifi connections. As a New Media application it is both a tool and a challenge, it provides users, potential “citizen journalists”, with the tools to create news, and it also challenges them to articulate their own journalistic voice. (Willis and Bowman, 2003: 9) This is not to say though that Storyful is entirely committed to new ways of telling stories, through the promotion of certain stories via the “Curator’s Choice” and the foregrounding of Storyful’s “professional” journalists stories the organisation illustrates “what counts as successful performance and provid[es] guidelines for participants” to be part of the “Community”. (Lankshear and Knobel, 2007: 18) However it does pose questions about how this might change the way we write, who we interact with, and ultimately who we are interacting with through our texts.
Despite Storyful’s pretence as a entirely new age of news, websites and online applications / tools such as Storyful (or similar organisations like Storify) could be thought of as another attempt to bridge the gap between traditional news reporting and some future social version. It continues to cling on to many of the characteristics of Traditional news media. With the promotion of professional “curators”, the privileging of certain content, the “centralizing ofexpertise” and consolidating of “intelligence”. (Lankshear and Knobel, 2007: 21) It also implicitly positions itself as objective and neutral (a claim made by many Traditional news organisations), despite the fact many of Storyful’s sources, especially those used to define context, are overtly political. For example the framing of a recent report on the conflict in Libya foregrounds the anti-Libyan government rebel narrative. The title of the story is ‘Rebels struggle to hold back Gadhafi troop advance’ and those sources cited are primarily correspondents from UK and US newspapers, as well as NATO and other UK / US military and government spokespersons. (Storyful, 2011)
This practice of relying on statements from those in positions of power is a precedent set by the traditional media where “[o]fficial sources and those in positions of power dominate the output of journalism”. (Williams, 1999: 275) A relationship engendered by governments and institutions through the holding of news conferences and the dissemination of press releases. This process goes back decades, if not longer. According to Brian P. Murphy’s account of the British ‘Publicity Department’ in Dublin castle in 1920, the then head of the department was recorded as saying “the labeling of news in some way as “official”…is the essence of the whole thing…For by virtue of that label our news gets monopoly value, a sort of hall-mark or copyright…which gives to the news…a value so high that they cannot afford to be without it.” (Murphy, 2006)
Contrasting Content Features
Bell and Garrett observed that texts “reflect the technology that is available for producing them” (Bell and Garrett, 1998: 3), with this in mind, it may be instructive to look at the different tools each publication utilises to construct their narratives.
Narrative helps us to make connections between events, feelings and experiences, and we can express these narratives in many different ways using a whole range of resources at our disposal—be they written or spoken words, still or moving images. Digital technologies afford us a whole range of opportunities to present such narratives as well as to collaborate over stories, to impact and question each others’ stories and to carry these over from online spaces into other areas of our lives. (Davies, 2008: 229)
Some of the features of new media which are employed by both traditional and new media journalism are, as mentioned in the introduction, blogging, micro-blogging and social media platforms. Blogging is form of self publishing, provided free by many organisations, that allows users with access to a computer and internet connection, to create, modify and personalise an online space in which they can publish content in a loose diary form, with the most recent entries appearing at the top of the web page. These entries can contain text, embedded video, images and audio as well as allowing hyperlinking and commenting facilities. Twitter is a relatively recent innovation in online publishing, it fills a space somewhere between blogging and social networking sites like Facebook. It provides users (again on a free basis) with an application that allows them to publish entries or “tweets” of up to 140 characters in length. These tweets are published to the web, they are also directly visible in the twitter “streams” of a) those people who network or “follow” the user and b) those other users monitoring “trending” topics via the use of “hashtags” (aggregates of trending topics specified by the user). Social media platforms including Facebook and MySpace, provide users with a web “space”, a webpage which can be personalised and accessed by the user and their friends and acquaintances.
Both traditional and social media news make use of several of these different web based self-publishing platforms, but to differing extents. Storyful is almost entirely driven by New Media forms, whereas the NYT is primarily based on Traditional forms, integrating new forms only as a means to compliment the main text.
Storyful articles make use of an intricate web of referencing, where each sub text element of the overall story is directly attributed to a source. Unlike traditional media stories where the use of referencing and / or links to outside content is restricted (and qualified by the use of legalistic sounding footnotes rejecting any responsibility for linked content), linking is integral to Storyful. In some sense its authority is derived from its links. Whereas Traditional news sources derive their authority from an institutional history of reliable news reporting, its industry standing and associations with other broadcasting organisations, as well as the extent to which their reports are syndicated and referenced by other news organisations.
This single Storyful article on the Japan earthquake and the following events integrates numerous links to sources uploaded to separate places on the internet, linking different users of different applications into one text. There are links to web applications providing blogging, micro-blogging, video hosting, image hosting and map functionality tools, such as Twitter, TwitPic, YouTube, Google Maps, yFrog, as well as references to traditional media sources such as ‘Tokyo’s Time Out magazine’. These internet locations also reference in turn to traditional media texts from organisations such as Al Jazzera and Japanese TV News. This ability to integrate references to other sources allows narrators (or curators) to use other voices to tell their story for them.
However, referencing, linking and attributing of sources also exposes the transient nature of social media constructed news. It is temporary, links are broken, their content inaccessible, leaving a link in the narrative chain missing. For example two of the YouTube videos embedded into the report in the first entry alone are now listed as “Removed by the user”. While this occurs to some extent in any web medium, it is, with the Traditional media tempered by legal requirements relating to copyright etc.
Further, as the story is updated, older entries collapse (they become hidden and must be revealed by clicking on a webpage button), previous events are consigned to the past. Unlike Traditional news stories which tend to summarise past events before going on to explain more recent ones, Storyful’s stories are always current, always reflecting a perspective on the now. Storyful’s continual updating of the story rejects the traditional media concept of a contained “event” perceived as “…temporally and spatially bounded”, Storyful’s stories are “never complete” with writers able to “add to the text at any point and from any location.” (Davies and Merchant, 2007: 171)
The New York Times integration of other mediums by contrast, such as hyper-linking to related content, photos and video, physically frame the report. They are therefore depicted as peripheral to the main narrative contained in the text. The relative size of photos and videos also denotes their importance to the story telling. They are just large enough so as to allow readers to infer their likely content, but small enough so as to allow the text to dominate the webpage space. When video and image links are selected they open a new ‘window’ outside the main narrative. The most prominent use of different media in the traditional news story is the use of photos and images. Most prominent news stories are framed by an image. This image foregrounds a particular perspective on the event being reported. In the case of the New York Times, the image shows a person standing on flooded road, which is covered in debris, looking out over a scene of apparent destruction.
With Storyful, the videos, images and social media are an integral part of the story, they are not used to supplement or accentuate the narrative, given the absence of coherent text, they form the narrative. As stories are constructed in a linear fashion, continuing downwards on the web page, readers experience the progression of the narrative by viewing each video and image, or at least, drawing conclusions on the content on the video from their titles. Unlike the NYT where videos are positioned in the webpage ‘sidebar’ and therefore presented as additional information. Just as news “[stories] should be capable of ending at any sentence”, the content provided around news reports should not be required viewing. (Bell and Garrett, 1998: 97)
While Storyful draws in comments and statements from social media sites such as Twitter the New York Times makes only one use of this medium, in the closing paragraphs of the report:
On Twitter, a person who used the name sinonosama said that students at an agricultural high school in Miyagi Prefecture were fine, but had to take refuge on the third floor after the tsunami flooded the first two floors. (Fackler, 2011)
However, even in this token use, the phrasing and word choice seem clumsy, there is little use of popular social media jargon, such as “handle” or “user name” to describe the source, instead the writer(s) opt for the convoluted “who used the name”, suggesting a degree of caution, a suspicion it is not the users actual name, or simply an unfamiliarity with the “in-group” lexicon of the medium. The second explanation appears less likely given that the New York Times has its own Twitter account, along with many of its journalists and columnists. Therefore choice not to use Twitter language and the positioning of the text in the closing paragraphs appears to serve as a means of distancing social media from Traditional news.
As with spoken language, written texts incorporate the use of many different voices. This process in journalism serves a very similar function as that in speech. Just as Janet Maybin describes how “reproducing the voices of different characters, children can briefly take on and try out that character’s viewpoint”, so too do journalists take on the perspectives of those sources they choose to quote. (Maybin, 1996: 38) The new literacy practices enabled by web based applications, used to differing extents by both the Traditional and New Media, provide an insight into the different perspectives journalists and news curators choose to take on.
One of the most prominent features of New Media stories such as those of Storyful is the use of sources such as Twitter. In contrast to traditional journalism Storyful does not mediate quotes from sources with “claims” or “says”, the voice is directly embedded in the text. This negates to some extent the ability of the author to impart a judgement by way of a qualifying phrase. While the choice of quotation and how it is framed by the remainder of the text is still open to manipulation, the quotation itself exists as an entity. While this does lend a degree of impartiality to the use of quotations, it also rejects traditional concepts of official statements as conversations, they reduce the ability of the journalist to ask the questions.
The variety of voices used in each report is interesting, Storyful includes a number of clearly identifiable Traditional news sources such as “Tokyo Time Out” and “CNN journalist Kyung Lah”, a number of the social media sources are also essentially second hand Traditional news sources, in that the users have uploaded footage from television news on to video hosting sites such as YouTube. However, there is much original eyewitness content, with a video depicting destroyed buildings provided by “fmyukiguni” and footage of a section of roadway sheared by the force of the earthquake provided by “mappan777”, as well as eyewitness commentary provided by Japan resident Twitter users such as “hikosaemon” and “jt_sloosh”.
Traditional media voices are primarily officials, with government, media and state institution representatives voices making up the majority of those cited. Among those referenced are “the JR rail company”, “Japanese officials”, “a newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun”, “TV Asahi”, “a reporter at TV Asahi”, and “Prime Minister Naoto Kan”. Eye-witness sources from social media and local interviews are used sparingly, with only two in the entire report: “Fumiaki Yamato”, “On Twitter, a person who used the name sinonosama”.
The use of voices allows writers to tell stories about events which are “temporally remote” from them, while also allowing a degree of authority to be imparted. (Toolan, 2001: 5)The choice of voice is therefore significant, a limited range of voices is more likely to reflect a particular narrow view of the world. Storyful’s use of varied sources, including eye-witnesses from the locality challenges the “ethnocentric perspective” of traditional reporting where Western officials form the loci of commentary on events. (Van Dijk, 1998: 200)
In order to demonstrate the potential effects of choosing particular voices in may be useful to make a comparison. When earthquakes and tsunamis hit Haiti and Southeast Asia (in 2010 and 2004 respectively) the rescue and rebuilding plans were immediately described as the responsibility of the “international community”. In reports on Haiti, Haitian officials were conspicuous by their absence, with American (United States) officials dominating reports. (Romero and Lacey, 2010) Haitians were reported to be panicked by the earthquake, they were, according to one eye-witness, “totally freaked out and shaken”. In Southeast Asia “[a] hotel worker reached by telephone was too frightened to talk.” (New York Times, 2004) In Japan by contrast the content and structure of the report suggests a degree of orderliness. Despite the “roar and rumble of the temblor, shaking skyscrapers, toppling furniture and buckling highways” there are no eye-witness accounts of fearful people, instead readers are told “the public is among the best educated in the world about earthquakes and tsunamis.” This is reflected again in the Storyful report, where the first line of the report reveals “Japanese sense of efficiency prevails”.
The choice and use of sources in the construction of the news narratives in both instances is instructive. Both accounts display a clear hierarchy of value with regard to sources. Public sources, in the shape of eyewitness testimony, are used primarily to evoke a personal account of events, whereas official sources describe the ‘big picture’, they provide information and comment on future events, such as how rescue efforts will proceed.
News reports are highly stylised texts, they have an identifiable structure shaped in a large part by the institutional guidelines and editorial policy, as well as various economic factors such as advertising and audience reach. Consequent space and time limitations dictate to an increasing extent how stories are structured. According to Nick Davies in ‘Flat Earth News’, journalists are writing more and more reports in less and less time (Davies, 2008: 59) and due to space limitations exacerbated by the need to increase advertising revenue journalists are forced to structure their reports in such a way that allows sub-editors to trim from the bottom up, (Faure, 2001: 357) (Bell, 1998: 97) in the same way reader interest requires journalists to position the most important information at the beginning of the report. (Bell and Garrett, 1998: 97)
These industry pressures have evolved a predominant writing style, dubbed the “inverted pyramid” (Refer to Figure 1) (Faure, 2001: 358). The inverted pyramid, shown below, depicts how information should be arranged in a news report. Important information is positioned at the beginning of the report, followed by further less critical information and information of interest, with background information and other unimportant facts placed at the end of the report. Bell notes that this structure, dictated by “news value”, upsets the natural or chronological order of events. (Bell, 1998:97) As we will see, this structure can be seen in operation in both the traditional news report and to a lesser extent in the new media report.
Source: (Faure, 2001: 358)
The New York Times report is an example of “hard news”, in that it is presented as a factual, unmediated account of an event, including only the most important and salient facts. It differs in this regard from what are called “soft news” stories, which are said to focus on “human interest angles”, which include to a greater degree other non-essential background information. (Fulton, 2005: 226) The most prominent narrative feature of “hard news” stories is the positioning of the writer as a third-person narrator. (Fulton, 2005: 232) The writer comments on events, their voice is not visible. For example, answers to apparent questions are reported, but not the questions themselves.
The NYT article was published on Friday 11 March 2011 (the earthquake struck Japan at 2:46 pm on the same day), although it is difficult to determine the exact time. However, given the article mentions events on Saturday morning it was likely published sometime on Friday evening, taking into account the 13 hour time difference between New York and Tokyo. This sequence of events is important, as we will see, because it contributes to the way in which the story is presented.
The first section of the report is termed the “abstract”, including both the headline and the lead paragraph. It “summarizes the central action” and explains to readers why the story is being told. (Bell, 2005: 397) In this case the report begins by describing events most current to the time of the publication of the report. As Bell notes in ‘News stories as narratives’ (Bell, 1999) the lead paragraph “establishes the main point of a news story”. Therefore the story is framed as a ‘rescue effort’, its opening sentence placing readers at the scene, post earthquake and post tsunami, with rescuers “struggling to reach survivors”. The earthquake, tsunami and “[c]oncerns…over possible radiation leaks from two nuclear plants” are portrayed as connected events. Without making explicit, the writer makes clear their connectedness by listing them in order, what Kozloff calls “causality from succession.” (Kozloff, 1992: 70)
The report then continues dealing with the human death toll, jumping between known casualties and predicted casualties, and infrastructural damage. Before going on to discuss future events, such as how the government and agencies plan to deal with the disaster, in terms of both helping victims and limiting the fallout from damage to the nuclear power stations. Having set the scene, the authors move the narrative back to the origin of the story, the earthquake. Here, the writer mixes technical and precise language of timing and location and emotive language of description, the “roar and rumble” of the earthquake and the “blazing buildings” “floating” away. This section constitutes the “orientation” or the who, what, where. (Labov, 2006: 220-221)
Once recounting the story is complete, the report returns to the present, with interviews with local people and news of transport disruptions. The report then evolves into a technical discussion of earthquake severity, how tsunamis are formed, with some details on effects felt at a US local level, as would be expected from the “inverted pyramid” model.
The mixing of the naturally occurring timeline of events, with those most current to the time of publication appearing first, and those contributing factors to these current events coming much later in the report, reflects a tacit understanding between author and reader that both are aware that there was an earthquake. It also suggests that despite the fact the earthquake is a major event, the purpose of the story, or the “evaluation”, is the resulting humanitarian challenge. (Labov, 2006: 222-224) Bill Keller, the NYT Editor, argues that what is included in news reports must balance the desire to provide a complete natural narrative, a chronology of events, with the acceptance of the fact many readers may be aware (both in the sense that they have all ready been informed and that it’s unlikely they need reminding) of various specific elements of the event. Journalists must therefore be cognisant of the inherent (commercial and literary) dangers of relaying information of “tedious familiarity” to readers. (Phillips, 2007)
As a new media platform Storyful’s stories are not dictated by an institutional or industry prescribed “pre-existing form”, the variability of its structure is limited only by the technological and intertextual tools discussed earlier. (Cotter, 2010: 138) Storyful’s chronological structure raises another question about the nature of narrative. There is a degree of debate about whether this blogging diary style constitutes a narrative. Michael Toolanargues that they are simply commentary. (Toolan, 2001: 5) However, while Storyful’s chronological diary format does not share some of the formal characteristics of a narrative it is fundamentally about choices, about perspectives and about how these are negotiated in order to tell a story. In any case, Storyful’s concept of “curation” is fundamentally a journalistic task, involving the sourcing and verifying of eyewitness and expert testimony. (Bell, 2005: 397)
As with the NYT article, the Storyful article also depicts a rescue effort, the opening lines of its first entry providing information about free accommodation and food in Tokyo. However, the prominent presentation of videos and images depicting the destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami is suggestive of a documentation of the event as a seismic activity, as an object in motion. With the wave as the principal actor.
Storyful timelines are far more linear than those of Traditional media reports. The timelines are disjointed, with new entries appearing visually stacked one on top of the other. Each entry is a linear narrative constructed from a starting point continuing downwards on the webpage. This reflects to some degree older forms of journalistic narratives, where reports followed a strict chronological order. (Bell, 1998: 97)The effect of this timeline structure is interesting in that it reflects the same confusion and difficulty to foresee consequences that those who experienced the event first hand would have encountered. Which contrasts with the third-person narrative of Traditional reports where the journalist appears omnipotent.
Both articles are primarily ‘human interest’ stories, as opposed reports on events of seismic activity etc. They are framed in terms of the effect on the people close to the event. It is empathetic, highlighting the “struggle” of rescuers, the number of deaths and missing people is brought to the front of the report. Considerations of economic damage are resigned to later sentences. The focus would no doubt be different if the report was to feature in the ‘business section’ of the NYT for instance. In that case the narrative may have foregrounded the property and infrastructure damage, before going on to speculating on the economic impact of the disaster. A perspective crudely exemplified by CNBC’s Larry Kudlow speaking soon after the event: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.” (Lalinde, 2011)
For example, ‘Long Pause for Japanese Industry Raises Concerns About Supply Chain’, published in the business section of the New York Times five days after the earthquake frames the story as a disruption for Japanese industries and foreign importers. (Powell, 2011) The report goes on to highlight potential opportunities for home industries in the face of Japanese production and supply difficulties. The two thumbnail size photographic images accompanying the article depict a port area, where a vessel has run aground, and an image of several cars crushed against each other, signalling the extent of physical damage to export / import infrastructure. Government plans to prevent further human casualties (which as yet go unmentioned in the report) by forcing the moving of people outside a buffer zone around the damaged nuclear reactors is described as a “distraction” for companies.
Another article, ‘Crises in Japan Ripple Across the Global Economy’, published ten days after the earthquake struck. (Jolly, 2011) Japan’s “cascading disasters” are framed as a cause of financial loss, potentially weakening the US economy. “The human face of [the] disaster” appears only towards the end of the article, where it was presented as a logistical problem for employers. With employees having to be evacuated and supplier operations therefore left understaffed.
In contrast to these reports the narrative of Storyful and NYT articles in question becomes clearer. It is apparent that the “replaying” of this event is contingent on the writer’s reader-expectation. The two considered articles could be characterised as human interest news reports, in contrast to the two articles discussed above which take on a narrative informed by business or economic interests. Each approaching the task of allowing readers to “empathetically insert themselves into, vicariously re-experiencing what took place” in different ways. The first set emphasising the human toll, the second the economic toll. (Jaworski and Coupland, 2006)
In contrast to traditional stories, where past reports are aggregated into each current report, Storyful stories are timelines, stretching from a present backwards (or physically downwards on the webpage) towards an origin. Therefore, much like diary entries, the story of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster is presented as a lived experience.
Storyful’s news narrative also challenges the Traditional model of the mediated release of information, it reveals information just as it is received by the journalist, it is for writer and reader alike a mutual learning curve, where the reader is essentially witness to the unfolding narrative. Traditional reporting on the other hand is concerned with centralising knowledge and controlling the flow of information.
While the articles present and foreground different modalities and voices, they can be seen to align with those accounts provided by officials. This reflects journalistic ideology at an institutional level.
As can be seen from the comparison of the two articles in question with those appearing in the business sections, perspective and direction, are not fixed. It is not the case that a journalist’s report is simply an account of what they have witnessed, it is a story weaved in relation to “audience design” and editorial / institutional / industry expectation. (Coupland, 2007: 58)
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