Conflict and reconciliation in Britten’s War Requiem – short documentary

For the next three years, the world will continue to celebrate the centenary of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. As we remember the Great War –– a war that, in many ways, shaped the world as we know it today –– and watch the world around us slowly fall to pieces, we can’t help but reflect on the meaning of conflict past and present.

What do we fight for and is it worth it? Is there any hope at all in reconciliation?

I turn to Benjamin Britten for answers.


Special thank you to Pr. James Schmidt and Alix Saba without whom this work would not have been possible.


On The Guardian’s video strategy and a surprising little gem

In the past ten days, an average of 18 videos have appeared daily on The Guardian’s website. While the daily turnover can sometimes vary dramatically –– 27 videos on Nov. 21 vs one video on Nov. 22 –– and while a ten-day average is hardly representative of an overarching  strategy, it is safe to say the number shows that videos are an essential component of The Guardian’s online presence.  This isn’t surprising as, according to Pew’s State of the News Media Report 2014, both digital video and digital news video consumption are growing. It stands to reason then that news outlets would want to leverage that trend.

Of the many videos The Guardian publishes some are in-house productions like this Isis funding explainer. Others are produced by outside news and content providers –– ITN who produced this video news report is one example. The report shows Buffalo slowly coming back to life after a major snowstorm buried the city under a thick, white blanket.

Reports and explainers such as these complement stories with useful insights and content that cannot otherwise be easily conveyed with words. The Guardian quite judiciously chooses not to embed the videos, and they are instead presented as optional related content essentially existing on a different plane from the articles. By offering videos “on the side,” The Guardian is putting the decision entirely in the hands of its readers thereby improving readability, speed and overall user experience.

One in-house production worthy of a detour is a six-part series of “microplays” launched by The Guardian and The Royal Court Theater a week ago. Off the Page is a new initiative that collides Guardian journalism with theater. Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of the Royal Court, described it as “a new adventure” where journalism and theater come together to “uncover the previously uncovered” and “say what has been unsaid.”

Written by Laura Wade and directed by Carrie Cracknell, the first in the series stars BAFTA winner Katherine Parkinson in a stark yet subtle political criticism. Although set against the backdrop of food-bank Britain, the play’s universal theme will resonate with viewers well beyond the confines of “Her Majesty’s united kingdom.”

To election night and beyond – reflections on social media

The Conversation Prism 4.0 by Brian Solis and JESS3

The Conversation Prism 4.0 by Brian Solis and JESS3

As election night approaches we, journalists, are reminded perhaps at little cynically of our many historical faux pas. Dewey defeats Truman is a classic 1948 example. Hillary Clinton beating Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary in New Hampshire is but another example. And I could go on. After all, media’s notorious missteps abound: here’s a roundup from 2013 by Craig Silverman at The Poynter Institute.

Of the many underlying reasons, the most conspicuous is a flawed fact-checking methodology and sometimes even an appalling lack of fact-checking. As more voters are using the internet as a campaign news source, social media offers a great opportunity to examine the real-world consequences of such journalistic shortcomings. Although the following analysis and recommendations apply to all social media, I’ll frequently mention Twitter because of its rather big appetite for viralizing false information.

That social media presents a journalist with some unique fact-checking challenges goes without saying, and it is not the purpose here to dwell on those challenges. The need “to balance accuracy and speed in a 24/7 news cycle”, as Mallary Jean Tenore put it, is ever present and especially demanding. But when in doubt speed should never trump accuracy – not now, not in a million years. Because the principles and ethics of journalism should not be dictated by the medium a journalist is writing for.

The high-velocity environment of social media makes it especially appealing to break the news first. Yet breaking the news first without due diligence can be devastating. As Jim Brady once tweeted: “if you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.” And if you’re a major news outlet – say CNN – the effect can be quite dramatic.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,”  American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said. As journalists, we can’t afford to be lax with facts – it is our burden to be relentless in pursuing and shedding light on facts. In the end, what kind of public service is journalism doing by serving up half-baked information? Who cares if your Twitter feed looks like Valhalla if the information you’re disseminating is wrong?

I hope it has become abundantly clear, by now, that our first priority as journalists is to get the facts right. What are, then, some social media strategies we can implement on this election night to make sure we don’t fall in the same traps our peers fell into?

It does help to have a social media policy set before election day. The policy should be based on a strong sense of what a journalist’s duty is on election night – and journalists should be discouraged from going rogue and calling races too fast – while also addressing the specific challenges presented by social media. The AP social media guidelines and their election night annex are a solid place to start.

Additionally, remember that common sense trumps all. Tweet responsibly. Fact-check everything: accounts, information, authenticity of photos … And when you make mistakes – because let’s not foul ourselves this is bound to happen at some point – make corrections and push out the corrections aggressively and strategically. Craig Silverman recommends that you “write human corrections, repeat them, help them spread, and match them to the channels you initially used.”

Finally, as you navigate through social media’s muddy waters please keep things into perspective: not everyone is on social media and Twitter’s reaction does not constitute public opinion.

If I have sounded like your mother egging you to eat your vegetables, it is because in a certain sense I was. Many of the things I have mentioned pertain, in fact, to journalism 101. And I haven’t said it all. I leave you with Liz Sidoti’s words to David Carr.

“I worry that reporters are so busy looking after the bells and whistles that they need on social media that they are not working as finders of fact, asking the though questions and doing the analysis.”

On The Guardian’s datablog – part I

In my first blog post, I mentioned that The Guardian was experimenting with a new beta version. My hope was that the new web design would bring some much needed visual improvements to the user interface and finally make The Guardian’s overall user experience on par with its outstanding journalism.

Let’s take a closer look at the new beta version. Here’s what the new homepage looks like:

                                   The Guardian homepage. Beta version.

The Guardian homepage. Beta version.

And here’s a screenshot of the classic homepage:

The Guardian homepage. Classic version

The Guardian homepage. Classic version

Notice the red box I put around the word data? That’s because the datablog is featured on the classic homepage with a dedicated navigation bar section. Here’s a screenshot of where that section takes you:

The Guardian data blog. Classic version.

The Guardian datablog. Classic version.

On the new website, the only way to access the blog is through typing it’s url. The datablog section disappeared entirely from the navigation bar. Why is this the case, and what’s the strategic rationale behind this shift?

Stay tuned as I investigate further.

ps: I’m not putting any links to the classic version because depending on your browsing history you’ll either be directed to the classic version or the beta version. If you want to see what the classic version looks like, please make sure to delete all cookies first.

Nov. 6, 2014 update: The Guardian has officially launched their new website. The older website is no longer accessible as suggested in my postscript. According to the internet archive’s wayback machine data, the launch happened on Oct. 29, 2014.

On Alice Roberts’ Latest Observer Article

We were treated to a plethora of fascinating science stories by The Guardian last week.

Ian Sample reported on the discovery of the first fossil evidence of a semi-aquatic, shark-eating dinosaur in the Moroccan Sahara. Nicholas Ray, a researcher in great white shark populations at Nottingham Trent University, called for monitoring sharks using satellite technology to prevent shark attacks. Ed Gillespie, at the environment blog, weighed in on the UN’s mock weather forecasts.

And I could go on. But one story in particular caught my attention and rightly so: it had the words “Aristotle” and “epigenetics” in its subhead. Put those words in the same sentence, and chances are you’ll have my absolute, undivided attention.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 7.33.34 PM

Alice Roberts, anatomist, author and broadcaster, wrote a compelling, thought-provoking piece  for The Observer, The Guardian’s sister publication. Taking a brief historic detour, Roberts explores how science, from Aristotle to today’s epigenetics, has attempted to answer the age-old question – how can nature create something so complex from something so seemingly simple? – and what this tells us about the nature of science.

Aristotle thought semen and menstrual blood mixed together somehow created a baby. Preformationists (around 1700) believed the egg or sperm contained a miniature baby, which developed into a full baby by the addition of the other gamete. When scientists cracked the genetic code, they thought DNA was the answer. But it wasn’t – a single cell can give rise to many different types of cells, yet all of them would have the same genetic code. There must be another level of complexity then. Epigenetics fills that gap. We now know that proteins wrap around the DNA and determine which genes are to be read and which are to be silenced.

We may laugh at Aristotle and the preformationists but, cautions Roberts, “they were making reasonable hypotheses based on what they could observe.” Scientists make do with what they have, and scientific progress invariably builds on past failures. Except these aren’t failures; these are tiny steps that push us ever forward. This is the essence of science. Someday “someone will laugh at us now”, says Roberts.

The piece is remarkable for its simplicity, and Roberts shines throughout by her ability to convey complex concepts in the simplest terms. But don’t be fooled – this is a lesson in science and the philosophy of science. It’s a also a lesson in humility. There’s much we don’t know, and much of what we think we know we don’t. This isn’t to be dismissive of science or overly skeptical. But perhaps a gentle reminder that there are equally important ways to experience the world. This particular Atlantic piece by Richard Gunderman comes to mind. The part where he talks about transcendence through music, literature and art hits home, and I think it would be a great addition to Roberts’ piece.

A quick first look at the Guardian

Click, click, click – I pound nervously on my keyboard. It’s now 7 in the morning. My sleep-deprived self is struggling to say afloat. The Guardian’s homepage opens, and a Nissan ad greets me. Sighs.

The Guardian has always struck me for its outstanding journalism, except for a few exceptions here and there. Look at their special coverage of the NSA files for instance. Look how well it blends investigative journalism with multimedia. Look how interactive and immersive the user experience is.

But that’s the exception rather than the rule, and the user experience is inconsistent across the board. The website’s homepage is terribly clumsy, with a large banner ad that sucks your attention away from the important headlines. The three-column model makes navigating through the stories tedious, to say the least.

Luckily, the Guardian is currently experimenting with a beta version that should bring some improvement to the user interface. Will the Guardian’s web design finally match its stellar journalism?

Only time will tell.