Sunday, December 16, 2012

Multimedia and data journalism: Boston Globe's "68 Blocks"

A screenshot from Boston Globe's 68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope

The greatness of journalism lies in its ability to force individuals, institutions, and communities to look at themselves with unveiled eyes. This may sound idealistic —or even coarse— after the disastrous coverage of the recent school shooting in Connecticut. Fortunately, there are plenty of projects out there that reveal why this profession still has something to offer. The Boston Globe's recent in-depth series about the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood is one of them. I plan to use it in classes as an example of how to combine video, photo galleries, data visualizations, maps, and written stories to weave a nuanced portrait of a troubled area.
When I learned about this special coverage on Twitter, thanks to Javier Zarracina, Boston Globe's infographics director, my first reaction was to joke about one of the maps, which reminded me of John Snow's famous masterpiece, a favorite of mine. I asked Javier: "Where's the water pump?" Well, the water pump is everywhere: In these graphs about educational underachievement, in this homicide map, in this small multiples display, in the low quality of life citizens in those 68 blocks have to endure; in the video interviews with them, too.

This project is also a reminder of the fact that journalism today is the product of teamwork, not of reporters supported by "production" types (designers, developers, photographers, videographers). Journalism has become a multidisciplinary endeavor. Let me quote Jennifer George Palilonis in her book The Multimedia Journalist, which I happened to be reading last night:

"As new technologies develop that enhance our tools, and as new software surfaces that makes multimedia production easier, the ways we tell stories also change. For example, when pagination systems were introduced to newsrooms in the early 1980s, page design suddenly became a part of the journalistic process instead of the production process. Concepts like information layering and better navigation for newspaper readers arose from that era, and many editors, writers, photographers, and others began to place greater importance on the presentation of stories (...) Similarly, as news audiences migrate to online sources, we are forced to examine ways the web experience is different from print or traditional broadcast experiences (...) News websites should offer customized content that appeals to web users whose habits and expectations differ from print readers or television viewers."