Teaching Examples

Data vs. stories
September 8, 2006, 4:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

News, stories, data. I was reading a fascinating live-blogging post from Foocamp by David Weinberger (found via BuzzMachine) and thinking about a student asking me whether people really have time to spend with all this multimedia journalism stuff. It’s a good question.

Maybe people just want headlines, wham-bam. But if that’s the case, then journalism is doomed, because the headlines are commodities. You’ll never make enough money from headlines to support the personnel necessary to generate them.

Journalists might find a lesson in the line from T. S. Eliot — “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” I agree with many that tagging and adding meta data to stories has long-term value. I agree with investigative reporters that large data sets, if interrogated properly, might yield compelling and important stories. I see that with this very blog, I tally up more visitors from search than from RSS feeds or bookmarks.

Data, information, facts. In the right combination, under the right circumstances, these can lead to knowledge.

And then, there are stories. Stories carry data. Stories can be categorized according to genre, length, subject matter, character, location, time period. Stories can be tagged. Adrian Holovaty gives us a big, beautiful bunch of examples in his Sept. 6 post.

I love Holovaty’s Chicago Crime site. I think it’s brilliant. One of the most brilliant things about it is that it is generated by data that would be collected anyway, even if the map did not exist, and it doesn’t require a journalist’s daily or weekly input to refresh itself, to update. No, it does that automatically. Brilliant.

The map, though, offers only data. A murder happened here. A burglary happened here. There are stories behind every one of those markers on the map — but telling them does require a live, breathing journalist.

Why do people need stories? Because we need more than information to live a good life. We need more than knowledge too. As Eliot knew, we also need wisdom.

Do people have time for multimedia or interactive journalism on the Web? Do they have time to watch a four-minute video or slideshow? Or do they only have time for a bare list of headlines?

Data and stories serve different functions for us. Take a look at what the Readership Institute says people like:

… readers are more satisfied with some stories that incorporate opinion, commentary, point of view, or attitude. In particular, when point of view is incorporated into stories about ordinary people — one of the top content areas that draw readers to the newspaper — readers’ satisfaction ratings go up. Also, satisfaction increases for business and sports stories written with a point of view. (Thanks, Will.)

How can we persuade people to seek out the best journalistic stories — the ones that help us understand the world, including people from far away and people who live next door?

Satisfying your curiosity about local crime might be done best with a map. There’s a lot of useful information that doesn’t need to be story-fied.

But when we do have a real story — a yarn, a tale, a tragedy or a comedy — we need to have talent on tap to tell it. We need the sounds and the pictures and the words to reach out like kind hands, to touch the audience. Seduce them away from the lists and the data. Get them to slow down and come inside, to a place where they might find wisdom.

The data and the stories work together. You’ll come for the facts. If the story grabs you … you’ll stay.

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