This module addresses these ethical issues:
- How can interactives provide context when different users may enter and navigate in different ways and when parts of them may be separated from one another later?
- How can interactives provide diverse perspectives when some multimedia elements work best with a narrow focus?
- How can interactive elements enhance users’ knowledge rather than confuse users?
- What should guidelines be on animations and informational graphics that include reconstructions or simulations of events?
Interactive multimedia stories, or interactives, involve choices that might not appear on the surface to have ethical implications. But their power for vivid and compelling communication makes it important to think carefully about how they are constructed.
Definitions of interactive stories vary, and they take many forms — from graphics with interactive elements (such as ProPublica’s Nursing Home Inspect) to presentations that integrate a text story with animations, video and audio (such as The New York Times’ Snowfall) Good interactive stories use the combination of elements that works best for the type of story being told.
In this project’s list of fundamental ethical principles, the one most relevant to interactives is to tell the truth. Telling the truth comes into play in several ways:
Some interactives are nonlinear; they allow users to enter and navigate in multiple ways. As a result, users may miss the bigger picture of what a story is about or key factual elements important to understanding it accurately. Creators of interactives need to think about what kind of truth their users may or may not take away as they navigate the possible paths through a story. As Mindy McAdams notes in “Ethics for Digital Journalists,” creators also need to ensure that links among parts of a presentation are preserved over time, including in archiving.
Another element included with telling the truth is to recognize voices on all legitimate sides of an issue. The nature of some media elements in multimedia stories can make that a challenge. As McAdams notes, a visual story such as a video or a slideshow “works well with a narrow focus: one issue, one character, or one location.” That isn’t necessarily a problem — some great stories have a narrow focus. But McAdams points out the importance of including diverse perspectives in stories about broader topics.
Depth of understanding
McAdams says creators of interactive stories can enhance users’ knowledge by the elements of interactivity they introduce. That might mean providing ways to click on a map to explore data about education, elections or crime. But these elements should be, as she puts it, “obvious, enticing, and not hard to use.” They shouldn’t make users work too hard or overwhelm them with information and scare them off. Leaving out these opportunities or making them overly complex is not necessarily unethical, but it diminishes the truth that users can gain from the story.
Distorting information can be an issue in animations and informational graphics that include reconstructions or simulations of events. (Graphics with coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden are a high-profile example.) Anything that is, as McAdams puts it, “an educated guess” should be identified if it is used.
The main author of this section is David Craig of the University of Oklahoma. Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida contributed to this page through her work on a chapter in the book “Ethics for Digital Journalists: Emerging Best Practices,” co-edited by Craig and Lawrie Zion.