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What can digital journalism learn from interactive documentaries?

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Digital journalism is also a field where interactive narratives continue to advance. As Sandra Guadenzi tells the interactive documentary Caixa Preta (still in production), “more and more people are reading newspapers on tablets and cell phones instead of buying a paper newspaper.”

Who buys paper newspapers to hear the news? Who pays for the physical newspaper? When I ask this for 15- to 25-year-olds, what I hear is a quiet, half-joking air. For these digital natives, the printed newspaper is almost a fetish or mania of people who still do not get along with digital technologies. They even buy the physical newspaper for other reasons, but not to know the news.

Without new buyers, it is also not surprising the fall in sales of printed newspapers of the corporate media, not to mention the crisis of credibility of several communication vehicles. Although the editorial line of the communication vehicle is the subject of intense debates, this post turns more to the technical aspect, asking: what can digital journalism learn from interactive documentaries?

Executive Producer of PBS’s Frontline Interactive Series, Raney Aronson-Rath, gives an example of this generational shift in the MIT report on interactive documentary and digital journalism (MIT Open Documentary, 2014). She reports that she was delighted to see her daughter still very small by easily manipulating the screen of an iPad, but that the true epiphany happened when Mira, the little girl, had her second experience with a media, in this case the TV, six months later. Mira was totally frustrated trying to interact with the screen and asked her mother why she wanted that box at home if it was not possible to play, play or talk to her. This short story can illustrate another relationship between these new generations and digital artifacts: they are not content with just a passive experience. Screen and image have become interfaces.

Interactive narratives increasingly immersive and experimental have been developing rapidly in recent years, making it possible to reach new audiences by exploiting the collaborative potential of today’s mobile technologies. They are works where we see interactivity, content customization and multimedia, as well as a dialogical action between the person, the work and the device. As for digital journalism, it is not just a question of putting a report on the web, but of being a report for the web.

Here are some examples of interactive narratives in English (The Guardian) and Brazilian journalism (Folha de São Paulo):

The Guardian – The British newspaper The Guardian may be one of the most attentive media groups to produce interactive narratives. With almost 200 years of existence, in October 2016 they announced the creation of a team exclusively for the production of virtual reality projects, led by Francesca Panetta, executive director, and Adam Foley, director of commercial strategy. The creation of this team was the result of the success of the virtual reality project  “6×9: a virtual experience of solitary confinement”, bastante premiado.

This project addresses life in a solitary one measuring 6 by 9 square meters, where about 100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the USA, with little or no human contact for days or even decades. This project, The Guardian’s first virtual reality, puts us inside the cell and chronicles the psychological damage caused by this type of isolation. Quite striking, the design can be seen in virtual reality – if you have the gear or cardboard glasses – and 360 degrees.

Another example of The Guardian’s interactive project is “The Counted: people killed by police in the US”

Here, a high degree of population collaboration is needed for content production and data generation. They receive information from people to count the number and type of fatal encounters with US police, offsetting the absence of comprehensive US government records. The Guardian reporters work with information provided by members of the public, submitting the data to the organization’s verification standards.

Folha de São Paulo -A recent example of interactive narrative in Brazilian journalism is the “Líquido e Incerto”  project produced by Folha de São Paulo on water.

lthough not allowing a high degree of immersion or collaboration, the project offers possibilities for interaction with the work as a whole, since the “participant reader” or interactor – as Paquin (2006) would say – does not have to follow a linear path to view the report. The reader can choose between the navigation path suggested by the arrows or the interactive menu that subdivides the subjects. There are also interactive resources such as the map of the projected impacts of global warming and an infographic on the water situation in Brazil.

Through this brief survey, it is already clear that digital publications offer new strategies of personalization, fundamentally changing the relationship between journalists and their publics. The reader migrates from the passive role and becomes understood as a type of partner for creation, criticism and diffusion of content.

In another post, I´ll continue to talk about virtual reality projects in journalism and the Story Map JS platform. To the next!


MIT Open Documentary Lab (2014). Mapping the Intersection of two cultures: interactive documentary and digital journalism. Available at
PAQUIN, Louis-Claude (2006). Understand the mediums interactifs, Québec: Isabelle Quentin Éditeur.

Claudia Holanda
Cantora, compositora e jornalista. Faz atualmente doutorado na UFRJ sobre paisagem sonora. Se interessa por música, comunicação, mapas sonoros e formas de politizar as tecnologias.