Making science spectacular online

It shames me slightly to admit that, prior to attending the session 'Making Science Spectacular Online', I had never really heard of the integrated multimedia approach to online reporting. I’d never thought to 'Snowfall' a blog post, never spent two minutes of my life watching a 15-second clip of a Serengeti lion eating a zebra on a loop, never been taught 'How to put a human on Mars' by the BBC. I knew nothing.

When we were introduced to The Serengeti Lion, an interactive feature developed by National Geographic, I was astonished.

Having spent a fair bit of time exploring the feature since the conference, I’d now go as far as to say I am astounded. I feel like I know the lions, like I’m a part of their pride. I’ve sat with them, huddled in a group as the rain matts their fur and tickles their ears; been a part of the desperate scrabble for a decent bite of warthog. Squealed with delight as the cubs playfully chased each other’s tails.

The Serengeti Lion has also been a great source of education. I may have a degree in zoology, but I had no idea that lions could physically dig prey out of the ground, out of their dens, if they were desperate enough. I also didn’t know that male lions form coalitions (rather more successfully than our government) in order to take over the control of prides.

Regardless of its triumph, for every point The Serengeti Lion won for the multimedia approach, another point was lost by other attempts. The strength of The Serengeti Lion lay in the fact that almost the entire narrative was told by the first-classvideos and the sound clips. The captions of text were a sideline, there to complement the rest. But what about when the text is communicating the narrative, with media “complementing” it?

The problems of integrating spectacular visual and audio media with traditional narrative were well summarised by Jim Giles, a journalist and co-founder of MATTER: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

Since the New York Times first released Snowfall, their flagship interactive report on the February 2012 avalanche at Tunnel Pass, there has been an enormous push for the use of multimedia in online reporting. Such a huge push, with so much enthusiasm behind it, that it can be argued that such platforms are being used without considering if it actually enhances the reader’s experience and the readers engagement, with the subject material.

As Giles explained, a narrative spends an enormous amount of time drawing a reader in, and for the visual effects to really work they have to help the reader get in even deeper, else they become disruptive and intrusive. When it comes down to it, the point of reporting, the thing the journalist should really care about, is the reader engaging with the stories they’re telling. So there’s no point in making a report look beautiful if it isn’t enhancing this experience.

So how can you make the decision? How do you know when to use this multimedia approach, and when to stay away? It can be a simple choice – for example this platform is unlikely to ever be suitable for rolling news stories, the process of production is just too slow.

But after that, it seems to be a matter of personal judgment. And in my opinion, that judgment should always ensure the narrative comes first, and the visual appeal comes second. After all, the right words don’t need visual appeal to be spectacular.