New media for illustrators and photographers

I conduct a class on new media for every batch that enrols with the Sri Lanka College of Journalism as part of its diploma programme for mid-career journalists. It’s never a boring class to engage with, with journalists coming from State as well as Private media, from print, broadcast, radio and increasingly, from their web editorial teams. There is often interest in one of two platforms like Facebook and Twitter before the class, which explodes into many questions over new media literacy at the end. I teach in Sinhala.

Today’s lecture was on new media’s potential for illustrators and photographers. My interest in information visualisation / infographics and data driven journalism stems from what I’ve done on Groundviews since 2007, leveraging Google Maps, TimeToast, Wordle, Google Moderator and other web based platforms. A Wordle word cloud I created yesterday and published on Groundviews (From draft to official text: Wikileaks reveals the US response to the end of war in Sri Lanka), looking at the US State Department’s statement on the end of the war in Sri Lanka was in fact picked up by the official Wikileaks Twitter account and highlighted, the first web story to my knowledge coming out of Sri Lanka to be flagged thus. I’ve covered flooding in Colombo and student unrest in Universities across Sri Lanka in 2010 using Google Maps, the hypocrisy of politicians using Time Toast, Google Moderator to capture ideas on how best to strengthen democracy post war and Wordle previously to capture and analyse other Wikileaks related content as well as the speeches of two Presidential candidates (Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka).

Much more of course can be done. The New York Times and Guardian offer compelling examples of data driven journalism as well as stunning, engaging visualisations. This is not a mentality that has informed Sri Lankan journalism, and my intent was two fold. One was to move students away from the design/programme centric viewpoint of many of these lectures, where it is what you can do with Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw that becomes more important than what one wants to communicate. Secondly, I wanted to demonstrate by example that web platforms today offer new ways of visualising even complex stories and processes, and that some of these graphics could be cross media – static in print, animated on web, recorded and broadcast on TV, referred to and used as research for programmes broadcast on radio.

This was, unexpectedly, utterly new for the class. Sri Lanka’s educational system is anchored to rote learning and mindless regurgitation. Worse, they are pegged to woefully outdated syllabie, especially in the mass communications degrees at University level. My lectures are interactive, and try to get students to think outside the box which for a range of reasons – ranging from cultural and gender based to the fear of speaking out one’s mind in the company of competitors from other media institutions – is a tough thing to engender and sustain for the duration of the class. We usually end up having a good laugh or two and there is a marked increase in the number of students familiar with and indeed, using social and web based media in their work. The bottleneck remains the older generation of editors and newsroom managers, who are not just ignorant of the potential of new media but are actively opposed to engaging with it, leave aside embracing it.

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