Daryl Ilbury

Why context is still King Kong

In Eish!, media on May 26, 2016 at 11:18 am

Kong_oldWhen I was a journalism student, I embraced the mantra ‘content is king, context is King Kong’. This is especially the case in science journalism. Today, as I watch the world of the media mercilessly upended, the essence of context seems even more important, but for a reason possibly lost on many people.

‘Content is king, context is King Kong’ has several meanings – all connected:

  1. The accuracy of content only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context;
  2. Whereas content may be powerful on its own, the significance only emerges when examined against the backdrop of the associated context; and,
  3. If you dig around in the context, you may find more stories.

In essence, it underscores the value of the journalist as a creative but disciplined storyteller, someone who sees the big picture and can therefore present a more comprehensive and accurate portrayal – something that is lost when compressed into a simple soundbite thoughtlessly shared by those not schooled in the rigours of the journalistic regimen.

However, it’s a mantra that’s sounding increasingly faint and anguished. In his excellent book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, Jeff Jarvis, head of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York, paints an excruciatingly frank picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. In brief, the era of vertically-structured powerful media organisations being the sole creators and gatekeepers of copyrighted content, is collapsing; the organisations desperately scrambling around in the debris for a viable business model.

Stepping in to take their place are myriads of smaller collectives, comprising former consumers hastily generating and sharing their own bite-sized content. Jarvis sees an opportunity for media organisations to tap into that content to learn more about their consumers so they can better serve them. ‘Serve’ is the key phrase here, because Jarvis insists that as content creators, media organisations separate themselves from the public while creating that content before making it public. If they are to survive, they need to adapt to providing a service that taps into, rather than competes with, those collectives.

However, I believe there is still a need for journalists to provide context, because without it these ‘new’ media generators and disseminators remain, to varying degrees, in what I call ‘content generation servitude’. Here I draw a distinction between content generation and content creation.

Let me explain through the example of a weather forecaster standing before a map of where you live, and telling you about the weather. You are interested in what the forecast is, so you can generate content, e.g. tweet, “Another sunny and warm day today!” You rely on the forecaster for you to generate that content. However, if the forecaster explains the context of her forecast – why the weather is going to be as it is – it can empower you. You begin to understand the bigger picture, and could get to a stage where you examine the local weather conditions – wind direction, air moisture content, barometric pressure – and forecast the weather yourself, and share that with others, with increasing authority and depth. Your content can become more creative.

Being able to fire off a tweet or share a story in a couple of lines may make you a content generator and disseminator, but it will keep you reliant on other people for content. Being able to see the big picture – knowing and understanding the forces at play – will help you be a better content creator, to tell a richer, more accurate, bigger and more powerful story.

And that’s why context is still King Kong.

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