One of the assignments i did for my Online Journalism module was a timeline depicting some of the major events that caused social stir across the world in the last 20 years. Some were real, some were just, well, paranoid behavior, hence The Paranoia Timeline. This is a description of the project – that stayed incomplete, still in a conceptual phase – and the steps and views i have on it.
I would like to hear from you, about what can be done with archive journalism, with different narratives, and if you want to help me develop the timeline (it’s filled with mock content, and it’s maybe in the 5% of its full potential) let me know. I wanted this to be a collaborative project, with different people contributing with ideas, videos, text, pictures, graphs, opinions, so any help is more than welcome.
So you can have an idea of what is the spirit of The Paranoia Timeline, here’s a small video i edited as a promo.
“Paranoia is a thought process heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion.” Wikipedia
In an attempt to explore new ways to report stories, I decided for this project to use a timeline as a platform to report on some events that had social impact in the last 20 years. The kind of aftermath these events had is not constrained to geographical levels, and they altered our everyday lives, and in some cases, our world views and personal experience. Some of these events caused social hysteria or global discussion and forced governments to act in ways that affected the common citizen.
The Paranoia Timeline[i] is based in a type of journalism that I believe to be quite ignored by mainstream media, which is archive journalism. This type of reporting works with – as the name implies – with archive information and preexistent content, and my idea was to use available data and information to create a retrospective view on a few events that fulfilled the parameters presented before. Being the Internet the world’s largest archive, it was logical to work exclusively with online content, and reuse it to make something new, using computer assisted reporting and mashups.
Though the current result falls short of my initial goals, it is a prototype for a more involving experience, and I consider it to be a work in construction. What I’ll be defending here is a concept with a few examples using interactive tools, but I realize this is just a small sample of what it can really be: an immersive, ongoing project, with more interactive features, providing a journalistic approach to issues highly debated and prone to partisanship, many of them used by religious and political groups to spin their own ideologies to the general audience. The purpose is to create context.
First of all, I had to look for the most reliable and customizable timeline creating tool available for free[ii]. After pondering a few options, I chose Dipity[iii], mostly because of its reliability and ease of use, but I must admit I preferred something even more powerful: Dipity still has some glitches.
The first question was how to pinpoint in importance and time the events for this timeline. At first I used my own memory and experience and then used other people’s to limit it to the most important and visible ones. Wikipedia is a great resource when it comes to sum up the most important events in a decade, so I looked up the decade entries, in this case the 90’s and the 00’s. It was a good starting point to find the candidates for this timeline, and, simultaneously, to have more links for my research.
But when it came to limit those events in time I had a problem: how could I limit the span of the importance of the events in public opinion? The best way I found was to use Google and their timeline tool.
By searching for peaks in the timeline created by Google, I could define exactly the period when the subject was widely discussed. Since Google also has the Google News Archive, with copies of pre-Internet newspapers, I also had a long run perspective for the subject at hand that could be used for historical context.
Other valuable resource was Archive.org. This website has an immense collection of media under public domain that can be used to illustrate some of these stories. I made a pastiche video using almost exclusively footage available there, with the exception of some stock footage available for free at a specialized website. The video works as a promo for the website, and it should have included two interviews, but I wasn’t able to do any of them. Still, my idea was to create an audiovisual narrative for each subject of the timeline, like a mini documentary series, using both archive footage and actual interviews with experts. I also tried to use Google’s Newstimeline[iv], but it wasn’t embeddable I had to give up the idea of having a scrolling timeline with newspapers about the specific subject.
I chose two subjects to investigate using data: the recent swine flu and the credit crunch. Both of them are rich in statistical information so I decided to do a death map for the flu[v], and a graph showing loan evolution in the United States since 2003, using Tableau.
The swine flu data came from Wolfram-Alpha[vi] that generated a rather reliable (after cross checking with other official websites) amount of data, with the number of cases and deaths per country. I had to make an option about which would be highlighted, but discrepancies in the logical amount of cases between countries made me go just for the death numbers. The conclusion that I got from the map is that swine flu was either more serious or reported in the developed countries. Traditionally considered Third World countries do not have many reports, which reflect the lack of structures to deal with the problem or how overhyped it was in the Western world. But France on its own had almost 3 million cases reported against 57 thousand in the United States, which led me to verify closely other sources. It seems Wolfram Alpha had the number wrong, there were only about 5000 reports, which proves that outliers in data are either new stories or just input errors.
For the credit crunch[vii], I researched the FDIC – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation[viii] database. They have a considerable amount of statistical data available for download. My idea was to chart the evolution of loans in the United States in the last years, and the main idea was that overall loans slowed down since 2009 but individual credits rose, meaning an increase in personal debt to cope with overall difficulties caused by the crunch.I selected the items that seemed more relevant and went for a simple line chart. My purpose was served.
The timeline had to be embedded in a website, so I used WordPress as a platform. The timeline would provide links to the posts about each topic, and each post would have developed content besides the one already present in the timeline items.
I tried to crowdsource some of the work, using Google Wave and my own network of contacts, but it didn’t work. I also tried to use HARO[ix] network, but they don’t call themselves HASO for a reason (they don’t help students out). Taking all the responsibility for the reporting made me narrow down the content for this assignment to just a few events. I asked permission to use some works already created by other users, like the chart in the 2012 post and some pictures from Flickr. An issue stood out immediately: my idea was not to aggregate content, but to create new content from what I had found. But eventually I realized there are many works out there that fit the needs for contextualization that are so much better than what I could try to create.
So I focused more on the concept, and that’s why I have so many empty posts, like I said, it is a prototype that needs further development. That’s also why I didn’t use social networks, although their importance would be paramount in the future, to engage users into debating the subjects of the timeline.
Copyright and ethics
Using Public Domain material is not an issue, but we always need to read the small print in some of the Creative Commons available content. Not all allow transforming the original, so I had to make some options. Overall, it was quite easy to find audio and visual content to work with, and I have a long list of links to videos to assess. I asked for permission to use some visual elements, namely the 2012 chart, which was what I was looking for, kindly granted by its author.
The disclosure of the Paranoia Timeline as a non-conspiracy theory website also allows me to avoid one sided views and the usual partisanship that we find in other websites that address these subjects.
What makes me look at my project as an innovative narrative for journalism is my idea that retrospective journalism should be made, especially now that we have easy access to so much archived content. The perennial quality of web content makes it easily available and thanks to the efforts of Google, even non digital content – old newspapers – is available, which makes it, in my perspective, an interesting and valuable journalistic narrative. Context is the keyword here, and I believe this is the most important objective of new narratives in a world of fragmented torrents of information. This could be also a premium feature for news companies.
This is yet far from finished, but I’ll be working on the project in the near future, and hopefully not as a one man band.
[i] TPT website http://www.theparanoiatimeline.com/