Monday, December 03, 2007

Website Analyis

Update: I got 18 out of 20

Sorry, this is more of my homework.

Exonerated, Freed, and What Happened Then

The New York Times published a story on their website November 25th about people wrongfully convicted and exonerated by DNA evidence. The site covered the story in three ways. I will analyse each aspect of the coverage separately, and conclude with an analysis of the combined effectiveness of the use of three kinds of media meeting the objectives of ejournalism to educate, engage and empower. Finally, I will conclude with an analysis of the site's relationship to the rest of The New York Times both print and online.

The Times focussed their reportage on the lives of the people after exoneration, rather than why charges were laid, how the conviction came about, life in prison or many of the other issues of the wrongfully convicted or the American justice system.

When arriving at the site, one is presented with a database list of wrongfully convicted people, presented using Adobe Flash. Audio from a highlighted interview starts automatically. Rolling over a name on the database reveals the base statistics of a wrongfully convicted individual showing the conviction and time served. Clicking on the bar opens information about the person's age, arrest location, conviction year, exoneration year and compensation as well as a picture, if available. If the person was interviewed, the audio will start to play, and the interview text is shown in a scrolling box. The audio interviews can also be played without directly accessing a person's details.

The database feature has some interactivity, users can select which story they wish to watch or listen to, or how much detail they wish to access. Users can also reorder the data by age, conviction, arrest location, years in prison, longest time at one job after prison, time to find a job after prison, where they are now, relationships, whom they're living with, government support, medical problems as well as compensation by years in prison, total, state or lawsuit.

At the bottom left of the site under Related Multimedia is a photo story Free and Uneasy: The First Year Out. It is a slideshow presentation of one the people included in the database. Clicking the link opens the slideshow in a new window. Although the database includes no profile information, the presentation tells the story of Jeffrey Deskovic. The sixth slide of the presentation is text which provides Deskovic's statistical information. For this slide the audio is stopped, the effect emphasises the information presented dramatically. The eleventh slide is a four pictures which show some of the activities Deskovic does, while the audio reminds of some of the things he missed as a prisoner. The Flash controller for the video is simply a play/pause button with a timeline scroll bar. The timeline scroll bar shows thumbnails of the images as one moves a hovering mouse along the timeline. Interactive elements are included within the popup window. There are two buttons for email feedback, and a button each for related stories, info, and to access the page of slide thumbnails.

At the bottom right of the page under Related Links, are links to two traditional text stories Vindicated by DNA, but a Lost Man on the Outside, which is a text supplement to the photo story of Deskovic and A Long Road Back After Exoneration, and Justice Is Slow to Make Amends which gives a narrative to the statistical information presented by the database.

The text stories have almost no interactivity, there are only four hyperlinks between the two stories. The only related links from the stories link to other stories within The New York Times. It is likely these are print stories shoveled up to the website and may only exist in the print version of The Times to drive people to the website.

The site provides information about the methodology used. The page tells how many people were contacted, how many people are exonerated by DNA evidence after being convicted, exactly what is being reported and how the story was focused.

The methodology page also shows the amount of people involved in a project like this. The technical staff is small, but the reporting staff includes 20 reporters, six researchers and one technical person.

The site addresses ejournalism's cornerstone of education, teaching readers about a significant, growing trend in America's justice system. Besides the raw number of people exonerated, where they were arrested, how long they spent in prison and their age; you also learn about the limited services available to this group of people on release, the compensation process, the amounts of compensation paid, physical health concerns, mental health concerns, employment and personal relations.

Within ejournalism we want to engage people with the issues of their society and community. For people who are moved by the compelling stories presented to help people who are wrongly convicted, this story falls short in empowering them. If one reads the window on the methodology one finds a mention of the Innocence Project, an American group who advocate for people cleared of wrongful conviction by DNA evidence, but there is no link to the Innocence Project, Amnesty International or other groups or individuals who are advocates for the wrongfully convicted or imprisoned. The site does not empower people to take action or follow up on the stories.

The list of wrongfully convicted people should be easy to update, as what is presented should simply be coming from a database.

The story of Jeffrey Deskovic allows one person's experience to illuminate the statistics of the rest of the men presented. Though the photo story takes advantage of some new technology, it is basically a traditional photo story posted online. The photo story could have been told in Life or Look magazine, with the same impact as it has online.

The website makes extensive use of Adobe's Flash software. This gives good flexibility to the presentation of the database information, and a sophisticated look and feel appropriate to The New York Times, but it can be incompatible with accessibility technology use by visually impaired users. Although The Times does do full motion video, the presentation of Deskovic's story as a photo story was well handled and emphasised his isolation.

The feedback button at the top right of the site allows users to send feedback to The Times via email, but there is no place on the site to publish user's feedback or response to what is presented. A place to post public response to the stories overall or the individuals presented may be helpful in finding ways to provide the types of assistance which is clearly lacking. As well, it would be helpful to have heard from "experts in the field". If expert interviews were avoided to allow these individuals to speak for themselves without intermediaries, a reader response area would still have allowed that, and also provided a place for people with expertise to suggest resources to help these men.

Most of the story is presented within the clean, easy to read, aesthetic of The Time's website. The slideshow uses a different aesthetic, with black background and different font set in a popup window. Although it is accessed through The Time's multimedia link, the story is not presented in a way which suggests it is special or extraordinary. This is unfortunate, because these are people who are in the most extraordinary situation imaginable.

The story does educate through the database, and it engages through its text and photo stories, but there is no empowerment given. This could be achieved either by posting user comments or by providing links to agencies who advocate for the wrongfully accused or imprisoned, or both. The men presented in the story need help at so many levels, not the least of which is to find meaningful connections to the society in which they find themselves. A publication with the readership of The New York Times could have been the beginning of a critical mass which could have provided a community for these men.
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