By the time I'd reached the sixth chapter of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's The Elements of Journalism, my mind was cluttered with all of journalism's clichés: clacking typewriters, late night phone calls, loosened collars and ties, teeth-gnarled pencils, paper trails, shoe leather. With a litany of trenchcoated, mustachioed men marching through my mind (with notepads in hand), I began to think these two subjects, videogames and journalism, couldn't be more incongruous...
I was beginning to see journalism as a practice too entrenched and the newsroom as an infrastructure too closed. My waning enthusiasm immediately perked when I read the following cautiously optimistic little gem: "If properly employed, the computer has the potential to alter the depth of investigative journalism, for the reporting can transcend traditional interviews and anecdotes and amass overwhelming documentary evidence." To be fair, I had found several interesting kernels throughout the book as points of departure or possible inroads for games in the field, but it wasn't until this point, page 146 to be exact, that I saw a very palpable opportunity for games in journalism.
The quote above demonstrates, without giving into the temptation of technological determinism, that the digital medium ("computer"), with it's data modeling and storage capabilities, can have a profound impact on journalism. Granted, Kovach and Rosenstiel seem more concerned with how larger data sets and advanced filtering techniques can inform stories, but they don't explicitly discount the expressive features of the digital medium that also have "the potential to alter the depth of investigative journalism."
The context of investigative journalism is key here. Unlike breaking news and standard reporting, timeliness doesn't dictate relevance for most forms of investigative journalism. Freed from more demanding time constraints, investigative journalism, as defined by Kovach and Rosenstiel, seems particularly ripe for innovative and alternative means of engaging information.
The authors provide a brief history of the evolution of investigative journalism and its unfortunate conflation with sensational "watchdogism." They identify three main forms of the genre: original investigative reporting, interpretive reporting, and reporting on investigations.
Interpretive investigative reporting seems to be the most likely candidate of the three to benefit from the incorporation of games. According to the authors,
Interpretive reporting develops as the result of careful thought and analysis of an idea as well as dogged pursuit of facts to bring together information in a new, more complete context that provides deeper public understanding. It usually involves more complex issues or sets of facts than a classic exposé. It reveals a new way of looking at something as well as new information about it.
Kovach and Rosenstiel provide as an example, Class Matters – Social Class in the United States of America, a multipart series from the New York Times that was the result of over a year of research involving demographic and economic data to illuminate the correlations between class and destiny. The project yielded eleven features, dozens of infographics and interactive infovis, and hours of multimedia content and it could have just has easily included a game component.
While Class Matters is extremely robust, a gamespace that modeled terrain in relation to the project's metric of occupation, education, income and wealth might have been an interesting additon. Or the ability to set variables for a particular avatar and see where they're most likely to end up or what sort of social connections they develop. These examples are ad hoc, but they're intended to demonstrate that incorporating a game within an interpretive investigative piece is feasible, especially when given more than a year to develop.
Again, the lack of time constraints make investigative journalism an ideal platform for incorporating games in journalism. Alberto Cairo, whom I've mentioned in a previous post, provides an interesting anecdote in his book Sailing to the Future: Infographics in the Internet Era (PDF!):
Non breaking features are very satisfying, especially if you have time to spend creating them. I started preparing the project for the 100th anniversary of Einstein's five important articles about Relativity and Photoelectric Effect five months before it was published. Obviously, I didn't spend those five months entirely with it (hey, I work for a newspaper, not for National Geographic!), but I was able [to] work little by little between breaking infographics, maybe one hour one day, maybe ten minutes the next. When you're in the newsroom you never know.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the newsroom need to be accounted for to accommodate games in journalism. Cairo's experience at Elmundo.es was only possible because the newsroom had a devoted infographic desk. That desk had to earn it's worth as a relevant part of the newsroom over time. While a devoted game desk may be a very long way off, ambitious investigative journalists might consider ways third party game designers or in-house developers could be able to contribute to their projects.
Alberto Cairo, Sailing to the Future: Infographics in the Internet Era, cc.
Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, Three Rivers: New York, 2007.
Photo by Chicagoeye.