Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is context what the people want?

For three reasons I've been thinking about the context of news stories lately. For one, I've gotten to know a Research Fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) here, and his research shtick (if I may be so bold as to sum up complicated research questions in one sentence) is figuring out how to give readers context with the stories they read, rather than just the latest.

Second, in my tentative research project (for which I am currently working on a literature review), I discuss episodic vs. thematic news stories, specifically during a crisis. The issue: when we just stick to telling people what is happening minute by minute without a longer history or explanation, are we depriving them of necessary context? Do they even want it? Do we care if they want it or not? A good example: four weeks into the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the news media captured photos and video of the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad. It became such an iconic image suggesting victory that news coverage dropped pretty dramatically shortly thereafter. News stories in that week took one event out of the context of the whole war and many people thought we had already won.

Third, I just finished a story about the Supreme Court after attending a "debate" at MU's law school, held between two very distinguished lawyers, one of whom is arguing a case before the Supreme Court next Monday. Instead of simply covering the story as an event, I tried to package the issues they discussed in such a way as to give readers some idea of the larger context of the story: what issues the Supreme Court will likely have influence in, how the elections may influence the Court, who is on the Court, etc. I take no credit here, the speakers covered these topics in a mostly clear and accessible kind of way. It helps that I'm a bit geeky about the Supreme Court, having read a number of books about the history and the current justices in my spare time.

The thing is, I'm not sure people care. I haven't gotten any reader feedback, but while writing and editing (and editing and editing) the story, I discovered that it's very difficult to distill such complex issues into a news story that the paper wants to run. Make it too complicated, and there's concern people won't read it.

There is a tension here: I want to give people the bigger picture, more context, more information, but I'm not sure they want it, will take the time to read it, or will even understand it. It's a big question. Lately my posts have been ending in big questions, ones I don't have the answers to. Maybe no one in the field does.

Here's the story: Supreme Court, and a sidebar on the issues.

1 comment:

Carole said...

For what it's worth, if I had seen the Supreme Court stories on the Missourian Web site I doubt that I would have read them. But having read your blog entry I suddenly had a context that made the stories more interesting to me. (i.e., you're really into the Supreme Court, it's important, you are surprised that more people aren't plugging in.) So this is a big vote in support of context -- though not necessarily the context that the writer perceives.