The ABC is trying some new things in how it does journalism. But, I think, not enough.

Last year during the federal election campaign, Professor Jay Rosen, from New York University, well known to those interested in journalistic futures, was in Australia talking to the ABC. He suggested some interesting possible new roles for the national broadcaster. One was as a “branded explainer”. The other was as the organiser and promoter of a citizen’s agenda in election campaign coverage.

Since then, the branded explainer idea has grown some legs.

What’s it all about? Every cadet in the history of journalism learns, along the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mantra, that old news is not news. First paragraphs have to contain something new.

The problem is that this often leaves the reader or listener baffled. Stories such as the unrest in the Middle East or the global financial crisis seem to land on our doorsteps or in our living rooms as though from another planet, and it’s hard to find answers to the questions that rapidly become to seem so stupid that we are afraid to ask them.

Such as: hey, how did this happen? Did anyone see this coming? And what the hell is short selling in any case and where is Tunisia and what has it been doing all this time?

The demand for news always to be new means that nobody, least of all journalists, sees it as their job to explain the background.

(There is also the fact, which we will pass over lightly here, that sometimes the journalists themselves don’t know the answer to these questions and don’t have the time to find out. N-ked emperors parade through our front pages and major news bulletins, and nobody dares point out the lack of apparel.)

For example, Rosen’s visit was at a time when the National Broadband Network dominated public debate. As Four Corners later revealed, it was the key issue that eventually persuaded the independents to back Julia Gillard. Yet how many Australians actually understood what it was, or what the Opposition was offering as an alternative? There were many headlines, but little explanation.

Rosen proposed that a meaningful future for the national broadcaster would be as a “branded explainer”, a concept he explained on Radio National’s PM.

Weeks later,  ABC managing director Mark Scott indicated in a speech at the New News 2010 conference* that the ABC was considering adopting Rosen’s ideas.

Well, now Rosen and New York University have launched Explainer.net with the USA not-for-profit ProPublica and our very own Auntie as partners.

The mission is to experiment with journalistic web tools to explain the background to the news.

Take a look, for example, at this Explainer on the troubles in the Middle East — and note that they are asking for feedback on what works.

At the ABC, the project is being run out of the Innovation department, with creative director Sam Doust in the chair.

Some recent work includes How to get out of Guantanamo:  in tandem with the Rear Vision program, and from the Four Corners program, the WikiLeaks interviews, complete with an embeddable object that allows the material to be picked up and used on any website.

There is also Castaway Kids: a Family Matters interactive, non Flash app that works on iPhone, iPad and smart phones.

The unit has also produced an editor application for program makers that allows for the (relatively) easy production of timelines, which are often a key part of explaining current events.

The editor produces timeline data in two formats (Card Array, or Road), examples of which are here and here (click on the main image to launch).

I am sad to say that awareness of the explainer.net project in the ABC newsrooms doesn’t seem to be all that great at the moment. Senior journalists I spoke to hadn’t heard of it, and senior management was less than well briefed as well. But still, there is movement.

So what about Rosen’s other idea — the citizen’s agenda. Rosen expanded on the idea on his Pressthink blog here.

He laid out 10 steps to a better political narrative, starting with finding out from voters ahead of the campaign, not who they wanted to vote for, but what they wanted the campaign to be about — what they wanted the candidates to discuss.

Rosen writes: “To answer this question, you will need every method known to the modern newsroom. Don’t rely on one or two; instead, use them all. Redirect the polling budget away from horse race questions and put it in the service of the citizen’s agenda. Send reporters out to talk to voters — a lot of voters. Survey the views of community leaders, meaning: people in a position to know what their ‘crowd’ wants the candidates to be talking about. Hold events designed to solicit those answers. Announce that you are putting together a citizen’s agenda to guide your campaign coverage this year, and that you want to hear from everyone, through any portal they care to use. Allow people to fill out a web form, or send an email, or record a phone message, or put it in a blog comment thread, or communicate over Twitter and Facebook. Use direct mail, advertise in the newspaper and on air, set up listening stations in coffee shops and shopping malls.”

The ABC, Rosen suggested, should then devote journalistic resources to the citizens’ agenda even if the politicians didn’t want to discuss it. It should become the “master narrative” for election coverage.

Now devoting journalistic resources to this kind of coverage would, of course, turn current political reporting on its head. An end to the reporter as an insider. An end to first-past-the-post election coverage and he-said she-said pointlessness. An end to the agenda being set by spin doctors and their charges.

Sadly, I see no sign of this idea of Rosen’s being brought to bear in the NSW election coverage so far.

And yet surely, at a time when some question the role of the national broadcaster in an age of media plenty, this too would be a fitting experiment?

*Declaration: I am the chair of the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism at Swinburne University, which organised the New News 2010 conference at which Mark Scott spoke. The foundation is also discussing with the ABC and Rosen the possibility of becoming an academic partner in explainer.net.

Peter Fray

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