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It Takes Two to Tango

By Brandy Kiger

Putting together Rethink08 was an inherently difficult task. Not only were we researching and reporting, we were also aiming for substantial community involvement, as well as implementing numerous and varied types of technology to create a Web site with layers of dynamic content. While this concept of multi-dimensionality was key to keep our audience engaged, it raised several logistical issues, as did the changing nature of the project.

Brandy Kiger at the site of the Rethink08 debate. Photo: Carmen Irish

We chose to use a blog format, after a traditional Web site failed to meet our publishing needs. The use of this medium was successful to an extent, but set its own limitations with incorporating photos, video, sound and chat dialogue. Because our limited budget did not allow for upgrades to incorporate these media into our design, we had to be creative and find ways to work around the setbacks until funds were available.

Establishing our Web presence required that we realize there is always more than one way to accomplish something. Ultimately, we were able to project a functioning site by being flexible and thinking around technical issues, which is I think one of the most important things that we learned from the project. 

Engaging with the community to foster conversation is a necessary part of today’s journalism. Journalism has become a give-and-take relationship with the audience. It is essential that we don’t just tell people what we think but allow them to participate in the process, which is much easier said than done. Audience participation is an uncontrollable variable. Despite trying to market the Web site by trading advertisements with news organizations, using social networking tools to spread the word, and resorting to word-of-mouth, it was difficult to garner audience response to our “Interviews Without Words,” even from the subjects themselves.

A sense of apathy

Even though our page was heavily trafficked, we received little interaction from the audience. Getting people to care about the things you’ve written is much like getting them to care about politics. There is a real sense of apathy. Many people do not want to participate unless there is something in it for them. But incentives can be detrimental to the objectivity of journalism: If we entice feedback by offering rewards, we are skewing our research results.

I don’t think that there is an easy answer to the problem of drawing the public into the conversation. There are so many undetermined factors as to why people choose to be a part of the conversation, and no matter how interesting you make the topic, there will always be those who are indifferent.

Using social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter is essential to be effective. They reach broad audiences and allow news to spread quickly in a “word-of-mouth” sort of way. If the information is interesting, it is quickly shared across networks, with people re-tweeting or re-posting on their accounts so that others might see it and be able to do the same. News travels quickly across these sites because of their nature of immediacy.

Screenshot of the Rethink08 Facebook page

Once we began broadcasting on Facebook, our friends shared with their friends and increased our Web site traffic dramatically. Social networks are an inexpensive and effective way to market and push information out into the world, but they are still limited in who they reach because a) not everyone has accounts on these sites, and b) if the story is not picked up and shared cross-network, then it will only be broadcast to those people who are your friends.

Journalists increasingly have to deal with an uninterested population. With “I-reporting” and comments on stories and blogs, opinion takes the spotlight. It is essential for journalists to separate fact from opinion and provide their readership with an objective view of the situation or issue. But they still must try to engage the reader in a meaningful conversation.

To be an effective journalist today means that you have to take on many roles. It’s not enough just to report on the story. Journalists must be facilitators as well. I think that Rethink08 has taken a step in the right direction to facilitate a conversation, but I’m not sure it’s quite there yet.

Read Brandy Kiger’s profile of Jessica Kotur

Discuss Brandy Kiger’s op-ed piece on the anatomy of popularity

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