Methodology
4-D News

2019 | Newsroom installation
4-D News consists of two interactive news formats that put recent media spectacles in a broader context. Navigating the timeline with a physical arrow reveals how quickly the style of reporting and the meanings of events have changed in only a few years. Here, news consumers become news explorers instead.

What if we understood history not as a linear story, but as one of versions, loops and correlations? Which alternative media formats are required to counterbalance today’s news feeds that only display content in the light of recent events, making the journalistic landscape easy prey to polemical spin? 4-D News is both an experimentation into news formats, as well as a research method that explores the development of entire news stories – highlighting subtle changes and recurring patterns over the years. Inspired by cubism, where multiple sides of an object were seen simultaneously, the dynamic interfaces allow to deal with past and presence on the same canvas.
1) An “Updating Article” dynamically evolves as visitors pull a physical scroll bar up and down, browsing the story along a timeline: Bits and pieces of over 20 original articles by the Süddeutsche Zeitung appear, disappear and replace each other, revealing meta-narrations of the coverage. The article revolves around Angela Merkel’s famous phrase “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”, 2015), which became a touchstone for migration politics in German media. Interacting with the article shows how over the course of four years, the meaning of this sentence has shifted fundamentally from “Can the EU accommodate more Syrian refugees?” to “Can Germany integrate Syrian refugees into their labour market?”
2) “Geo-News” displays the changing perception of the Syrian city of Aleppo over the course of the conflict. With a physical time-slider, one can navigate through video-material of (Dutch) media coverage on Aleppo from 1990 up to 2019. Comparing point of views of different times, users can debunk inconsistent and lopsided coverage and start to question media framing(s). How come that recent reports on demolition, war and distress in Aleppo easily buried memories of an overall peaceful and culturally vibrant Aleppo of 2008?

 

This project was supported by: Z33´s FORMAT program, Fontys Readership in Journalism & Responsible Innovation, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.
Collaborating journalist: Stern de Pagter | Photographer: Selma Gurbuz

Becoming A News Explorer
Written for Designing Journalism
Published by Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek

Even though daily news about migration like the ones above are part of an ongoing global story, we are increasingly confronted with quick-to-consume snippets of ‘news updates’ that present themselves as breaking news every day1 – one headline covering up another instead of contributing to broadening the discourse, or questioning the developments and major causes behind them (in this case ie. rising global inequalities of those affected by resource depletion and habitat destruction). Often a result of keeping information short for digital consumption, the inverted pyramid “dictates that the most newsworthy information leads, followed by the important details and finally the general information and background”2 – with the latter most likely suffering severe cuts in words. Is ‘staying informed’ by ‘keeping up with the news’ the only goal? What could readers gain from a more zoomed out view of those same articles?

 

Compressing time

US reporter Jeff Gammage highlights the importance of bringing a historic perspective into the journalistic landscape: “Even when I was a young reporter covering city council meetings, I’d think, ‘This didn’t just spring out of thin air. A whole host of things happened to bring us to this moment.’ I try to think of all my stories that way: How did we get here? And what does the past have to say about the present?3

If fast-paced news stories don’t make it beyond our collective short-term memory: How can we emphasize historic developments – without getting overwhelmed? As designers intrigued by the way people relate to information and systems, we spent the past two years coming up with new, dynamic news formats – designed to position the most recent articles in the light of previous reporting.

One major outcome is 4-D News: An interactive newsroom that turns news consumers into news explorers by letting them navigate through the layers of time, placing the focus on the developments of major stories, while highlighting subtle changes and recurring patterns over the years.

Looking back not at what was reported in the news, but how it was reported, one can observe the tone of voice and framing of a topic shift over time. What were the sentiments on ie. the climate or the police a few months back? What new context does the story find itself in? What associations does the story evoke now, compared to ie. three years ago?
One of the stories we researched was how German chancellor Angela Merkel’s much-cited phrase “Wir schaffen das”4 (“We can do this”) was portrayed in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung between 2015 and 2018. This sentence became a touchstone for migration politics in German media, with its meaning having shifted fundamentally from
“We (the European Union) can help refugees currently stuck in Hungary” to
“We (German citizens) can help accommodate refugees by making an extra effort” to
“We (the German economy) must integrate these refugees and give them all a job”

The research was translated into an “Updating Article” that dynamically changes as visitors pull up or down a physical scrollbar-timeline in the shape of an arrow – allowing to explore bits and pieces of the original 30 articles that appear, disappear and replace each other, thus revealing different sentiments and framings in different times. In correspondence a small monitor displays the ever changing definitions of “WE”, “CAN DO” und “THIS”, systematically revealing shifts in public discourse.

At the time of writing this text, 4-D News has been exhibited at z33 House for Contemporary Art, Design & Architecture (BE), BIO26 Design Biennale (SLO), Dutch Design Week (NL) and will be shown at Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts (DE) in 2021 to trigger discussions about the current media landscape.

While we were offered to continue our research at Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek, interestingly our residency period coincided with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, which sent both news producers and consumers reeling in the floods of live-updates and number charts. Not getting sucked in the granular information feeds and rather focussing on the bigger changes in narrative became ever more important if one were to ‘stay informed’, given that the information was quite often contradicting on a day-to-day basis. Especially the face mask has taken a rollercoaster ride of shifting public perceptions and associations during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

To an archaeology of the future

Besides examining a new topic, the time spent at the residency allowed us to reflect on our own research method, which eventually led to the opportunity to team up with the Fontys Readership Journalism and Responsible Innovation, ID Fuse and the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision to work on a new project: The Newsslider.

Newsslider is a research tool for journalists and researchers that takes the principles explored in 4-D News and positions them in a more applied, web-based context. With access to the vast television collection at the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision and the intent to partner up with more news outlets, the goal is to open up existing archive material by showing the historical developments of any given topic in a clear visual timeline. For example, many news outlets often already categorized their news contents into news dossiers based on countries, or recurring topics like climate change or migration as mentioned in the beginning of this text.

With advances in Natural Language Processing as a means of extracting information and correlations from textual data, we have expanded our initial research method by e.g. being able to compare related keywords in order to track changing terminology over time. Like this, our team was able to trace how ‘climate change’ is surrounded by ‘global warming’, but also words such as ‘greenhouse gases’, ‘mass extinction’ or ‘acid rain’ in different years. Newsslider displays how these terms relate, which of them came up most often during ie. the 80s and raised the question why no one is talking about ‘acid rain’ in 2020 anymore.

Collaborating with this group of interdisciplinary partners allowed us to dive deeper into the aspect of time and explore new possibilities of looking back into the rich past in order to get a better understanding of both present and future.

1 Bernstein, Jon. “TLDR: so just how short should your online article be?”. The Guardian. 15 July 2015.
https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length Accessed 30 Nov 2020

2 Bernstein, Jon. “TLDR: so just how short should your online article be?”. The Guardian. 15 July 2015.
https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length Accessed 30 Nov 2020

3 Morell, Ricki. “What Happens to News When Journalists and Historians Join Forces”. Nieman Reports. 21 Jan 2020.
https://niemanreports.org/articles/what-happens-to-news-when-journalists-and-historians-join-forces/ Accessed 27 Nov 2020

4 phoenix. “Flüchtlingspolitik: “Wir schaffen das”-Statement von Angela Merkel am 31.08.2015”. Youtube. 31 Aug 2016.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDQki0MMFh4 Accessed 30.11.2020