I’ve often felt helpless reading tragic news stories. I’m left wondering how I can help and wishing the news story could give me an answer. For example, I have been reading a number of news stories about men of color who are killed by the police. I want to use my skills and network to reduce the number of killings. What if these stories, rather than merely providing the latest information, offered me a clear path to directly apply my skill set?
Is it possible to transform news consumers into superheroes?
Graduation is just around the corner for me, and I’ve been exploring how I might make a career of this rapid-response design work around major issues that arise in the news. I’ve focused primarily on figuring out which skills I need to develop and the kind of network I need to cultivate in order to provide a meaningful contribution over a diverse set of issue areas addressed in the news. More recently, I’ve wondered how news media could draw a clearer, shorter path between information and action by illuminating ways in which readers may be connected to a story.
The initial steps of the design process dovetail nicely with those of a journalist. A designer needs to smoothly zoom into and out of people’s worlds in order to design for them. To create context-appropriate solutions, designers must accurately map the actors who intersect with the people for whom they design. Those actors may intersect directly or indirectly, and seeing all of those vectors requires a robust repository of knowledge. A reporter works in much the same way and generates similar maps; however the story they publish is only a keyhole view into the universe the reporter explores during their research. So, how can we put that other information to work and enable anyone to engage with a story and its world in a more personal and impactful way?
The d.school’s media experiments team is already hard at work exploring the potential relationship between investigative reporting and design, and conducted an independent study this past fall quarter that used research from investigative journalists to launch design projects. Such full access to journalists is ideal, but it requires close-knit relationships and is difficult to scale.
But imagine if journalists could package their notes in a digestible way that wouldn’t require a relationship to manage its use? There has been much talk in the journalism community of what to do with the reporter’s notebook. There are pros and cons to opening a journalist’s full notebook and distributing its contents. But I’m not advocating for reams of information to be tossed online. Instead, picture an annotated map of nodes and paths showing connections between actors in a particular story – a full map of all the connections to people who could be helped. It could be color-coded to show their proximity to the issue at hand.
The more nodes there are the better. This could serve as a path to and through a network that I’m unfamiliar with that begins or ends in a network I know or feel is accessible. If I can read an article that hooks me and then immediately engage people I know personally who can connect me to folks or organizations on that map, my barrier to entry for an impactful project could drop significantly.
Knowing what to do requires knowing how you as an individual are connected or can possibly connect to the issue. Anyone can change their Facebook profile photo to a supportive icon, which can bring awareness, but has questionable impact. But imagine knowing that your company works with a law firm that played a minor but positive role in a pro bono case related to a story that moved you. You could, with that knowledge, push your company to do more work with that law firm and actively encourage them to take more pro bono cases.
What if you could quickly discover, after reading a report about a recent string of evictions, that your local grocer, who wasn’t mentioned in the report, quietly provides free meals to the affected families. This then leads you to patron that grocer more often.
Our world is connected in strange and unexpected ways and reporters uncover and follow these connections to find and write stories. Sharing these connections with news consumers allows others to discover and tread new paths, shortening the distance between knowledge and action and giving them a way to contribute that is unique to them.
Andrew Molina is a graduate student at Stanford pursuing a master's in Human-Computer Interaction. He is also a d.school Experience Assistant.