The role of technology in journalism

There is a seasonal theme to this month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by The Guardian Developer blog.

Journalists are being asked when would be the best present from programmers and developers, and vice versa for developers.

It is a key question as it focuses on the intersection of emerging communication technologies and journalistic norms and practices.

The way journalists do what they do has always been affected by technology, from the telegram to the television.  This is a a two way process, as journalists shape the technology to gather, process and disseminate the news.

There is a process of negotiation as established ways of working come up against of emergent communication technologies, and journalists explore different ways of telling stories.

There is no denying that technology is increasingly playing a bigger role in what journalists do and how they do it.  This presents its challenges for journalism educators as students need to develop competencies in digital story-telling.

My approach is to try to make the technology as invisible as possible so that students can focus on the journalism.

This doesn’t mean that journalists shouldn’t have an understanding of the technology. More importantly, they should understand how its features can enhance their story-telling.

For example, the fixed-line telephone is an invisible technology.  Most people don’t think about how it works and the technical infrastructure necessary to connect people over distance. We just use it to communicate, do interviews, gossip.

In the digital sphere, the software program, Soundslides, is a good example of an invisible technology. It is remarkably easy to learn to make an audio slideshow using the software.

The mechanics of creating an audio slideshow are the easy part. The hard part is creating a compelling work of journalism that combines still images and sound, with a narrative that informs, enlightens and entertains.

The ideal technology manages to combine complexity with simplicity. It combines a powerful set of technical features with a user-friendly interface.

My Christmas wish is for programmers and developers to create tools and services that are invisible and enable journalists to focus on doing what they are best at, telling stories.



  • So what happens when something goes wrong with Soundslides, or you want to do something just a little bit different that the software doesn’t allow? (Example: The clumsy hack for making a soundslide without sound.)

    The problem with this approach is that students will be helpless to actually help create the future of journalism. They’ll be completely at the mercy of geeks like me (disclosure: I’m a programmer-journalist) to give them tools. The problem with this is that it forces a false constraint upon them. The web is *so* malleable that there is no reason to lock yourself into a box that someone else has created.

    Another way of thinking about this: Telling the story effectively requires the right tools. Technology is one of those tools. You don’t let your source drive an interview. Why would you let a programmer drive your story?

    I’m not saying all easy-to-use tools are bad. (ProPublica’s TimelineSetter, for instance, is pretty awesome.) But you have to know when to use one of those tools vs. when to make your own hacks.

    My last point: Please, please, please don’t perpetuate the notion that developers and programmers aren’t journalists. You can tell a story with code just like you can tell a story with words. (For a couple of examples, see my own jcarn post:

  • Alfred Hermida says:

    Thanks for the comment Heather. I am not saying that journalists should be ignorant of code, or that developers or programmers cannot do journalism. But this doesn’t mean that every journalist needs be a developer or every developer needs to be a journalist. We have to recognise that individuals will bring their own strengths to journalism. Often,t he best collaborations are those that involve both journalists and developers as they bring a different set of skills and perspectives.

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