Watercolor and pen drawing of an outline of a newspaper.

Use structured journalism to cover complex, ongoing stories

November 26, 2018

Published with the International Journalists’ Network.

When covering complex, ongoing stories, such as outbreaks of violence and criminal trials, journalists typically have far more information than they can squeeze into the average daily news story. The result: a series of oftentimes repetitive, perishable articles that may ignore or oversimplify the bigger picture.

Structured journalism is a new storytelling form that breaks out of this pattern. This approach to reporting organizes information into categories, which can help improve story organization for topics that evolve over long periods of time. It meets the needs of different readers, from those who want a bite-sized recap of a story to those interested in exploring every angle behind an issue, said Ritvvij Parrikh, an ICFJ Knight Fellow and co-leader of PROTO, a startup that supports civic media in India.

Parrikh leads the development of digital tools and technologies to help newsrooms in India expand their health, gender and development coverage, including through structured journalism projects.

Big and small newsrooms around the world have used structured journalism to cover themes like violence, power, fact-checking, court cases, entertainment and more. In a recent webinar supported by the Dow Jones Foundation, Parrikh gave an overview of structured journalism and methods for implementing it in newsrooms.

Advice for picking the right topic

The key to a successful structured journalism project is choosing the appropriate topic, Parrikh said. He suggests selecting a well-defined civic issue that impacts people’s everyday lives and is relevant over a long period of time.

For example, the data-driven project Land Conflict Watch tracks ongoing resource and property ownership disputes happening throughout India. The topic is broad enough that it can be examined from many different angles — including data on the type of land disputed (private or public), reasons behind the conflict, the sector or industry involved, geographic region and more — and it will stay relevant over many months and years. The topic is also clearly defined, establishing clear boundaries between what should and shouldn’t be included in the project. Parrikh and the PROTO team developed the technology that powers Land Conflict Watch.

GIF of Land Conflict Watch site

The Guardian’s structured journalism project The Counted tracked the number of people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015-2016. This investigation includes data on the killings, the victims’ backstories, in-depth examinations of police procedures and analyses of national trends during the selected time period.

Add multimedia storytelling

Parrikh also stressed the importance of including multimedia elements like videos and interactive maps, as in Reuters’ poll explorer. The project includes the results of Reuters/Ipsos polls on a wide variety of topics, from immigration to the Oscars, which are presented in interactive graphs.

These dynamic elements make it easier for journalists to reach a wider range of readers because this structure allows users to choose the experience and information in which they’re most interested. Adding dynamic pieces — such as interactive maps, videos, audio and more — make the stories more shareable and engaging, Parrikh said.

Parrikh also cautions against attempting to adapt structured journalism to a generic website, as structured journalism loses its effectiveness when multiple topics are tackled at once. “What you could have is a website that is a collection of multiple subsites, and each subsite targets a very specific topic.”

Watch the full webinar below.

Learn more about ICFJ’s Dow Jones webinar series here.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Hal Gatewood

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