Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Using online video to explain AV & First Past the Post

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2011

There’s no such thing as boring information, just boring presentation.

Anon

In a week, voters in Britain will have a once-in-a-generation chance to decide whether the election system in the UK should change.

At the moment it’s run on a plurality system called ‘First Past the Post’, but after last year’s election there were calls to switch it to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system.

In the last couple of months, opposing campaign groups, politicians and journalists have been trying to sway public opinion, in the minds of some, by using increasingly desperate tactics, creating (in Charlie Brooker’s words) “a stupidity whirlpool that engulfs any loose molecules of logic”. For example, both sides claim voting the other way would bring in the extremist British National Party.

It’s created so much confusion, there are worries people might not bother to vote at all.

As a pet project over the Easter break, I’ve created this video explainer to cut through the crap and explain First Past the Post and Alternative Vote properly.

Youtube version

Source list (pdf)

It comes with an accompanying source list, with every fact that appears checked against a reliable source. I interviewed political scientists to clarify key points of explanation too. I’ve tried to avoid opinion as much as possible, although I think you sometimes have to sacrifice total objectivity for the sake of clarity.

It’s far from perfect: it’s twice as long as I was aiming for and the visuals aren’t strong enough for a start. Feedback from close colleagues suggests the second half might be bordering on comment and not explanation (what do you think?)

I’m not the only one who’s had a crack at explaining the nuances of these two systems.  The BBC’s heavyweight current affairs programme Newsnight tried using (rather weak) satire to do it; the Electoral Commission itself attempted a Common Craft style cartoon which might have mis-read its audience; cartoons were order of the day in other films too. And Dan Snow’s piece is actually a campaign so doesn’t count, but he uses a good real-life example to explain AV.

Explaining the news

This explainer is the pilot of a bigger project on explaining the news I’m starting this spring, inspired by the work of Jay Rosen’s Studio20 program in New York City.

I think online video has huge potential to simplify a complicated topic and engage people with the issue, in fact, I believe video can do this better than any other medium.

I’ll go into detail in a later post, but in the meantime I’ll be watching the reaction to this video to get an idea of whether it’s got legs. If you like it (or don’t like it!) please share it online (and let me know in the comments)!

It’s time to change how we think about “news”

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 14, 2010

While narrative prose will always play a central role in human communication, the future of public service journalism does not reside with “the story.”

There’s a very smart new blog on the scene, called The Future of Context. It’s run by Matt Thompson of Newsless, with input from Jay Rosen, Tristan Harris and Staci Kramer. The aim of the blog is a noble one: “…we wanted to bring some context to the question of context.”

Read any journalism manual, and it’ll tell you the importance of giving your reader or viewer the context to the story, putting it in its place. But in the rush to learn new technologies, multiskill and bootstrap, are we forgetting that?

In a post over the weekend, Howard Weaver summed up one of the big shifts in journalism pretty damn well:

In my salad days journalists relied on one tool to handle it all – the constantly changing river of news as well as the intricate web of process and relationships. Our tool was the story, a finite prose narrative anchored to one spot in time – all the news we could gather and report by midnight, more or less. Compared to the alternatives of the day, it was a rich and powerful source of information.

Compared to the alternatives today, it’s not.

He goes on to pose Jeff Jarvis‘ view that news, instead will be made up of ‘the topic, meaning a blog or site “that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering.”’

The paradigm shift

So, is the news story dead? How does that affect us as journalists? One thing you can’t deny is that things are changing. Fast. Irrevocably. And completely. Matt Thompson sums it up very well, and journalists should take note:

“I think we’re on the verge of an epochal advancement in journalism. We’ve spoken for years about the radical evolution that must take place, but I think our ideas are only now matching our ambitions. In recent years, our craft has gotten quicker and glitzier and slightly more in touch, but all our progress has been incremental. Now, the paradigm shift is finally at hand …”