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Xenophobic attacks broke out in Soweto last week spreading to other areas around Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Khayelitsha in the Western Cape. News organisations were quick to report on the killings as tension was still brewing between local and foreign business owners.
But beyond the headlines and live crossings, it was easy to think the violence was isolated to a few hot spots. Context and the sheer geography of the attacks were hard to grasp, even if you read all you could find about the violence. A small in-house team at Primedia’s EWN saw the opportunity to explain what was unfolding across South Africa by using open-source data journalism tools.
“On radio it can be difficult to reflect in each bulletin the full trajectory of the attacks,” says deputy news editor Camilla Bath. “So being able to present it to our audience in an interactive and graphic way was important.”
Headed by Bath, the team set out to explain what was unfolding across the country in an interactive feature on their website. “The Soweto story was dynamic right from day one, with groups of looters gathering and dispersing rapidly and sporadically. It was also all about the geography — where things were happening. StoryMap presented a unique way of plotting the development and spread of the attacks from the epicenter of Snake Park into other parts of Soweto and beyond. The story is strongly visual and so the image functionality was important too.”
StoryMap is an open-source tool used by journalists across the world to connect news with its locations, especially useful for events unfolding across a large geographic area. Its funded and kept free by the Knight Foundation, one of the largest private funds in the US aimed at entrepreneurship and innovation in journalism.
EWN used StoryMap to integrate geographic spots, photos and their on the ground reporting to offer a day-to-day sequence of what was happening. As the map moves from Soweto to downtown Johannesburg pointing out where the next attack occurred, it provides the kind of context needed to bring this story home.
Despite being regarded solely as the news operation of CapeTalk and 702 Talk Radio, EWN has over the last few years set an example of what a 21st century platform-agnostic newsroom could be. While other broadcast journalists were still running around with BlackBerrys, EWN reporters were equipped with iPhones to e-mail voicers faster and of better quality than its competitors. Today EWN has one of the best local online video teams and their attempts at pushing the boundaries in journalism seems to be paying off.
Yet there’s no guarantee that these efforts will help its parent company Primedia be more profitable or draw more listeners and users. It’s the kind of challenge all news organisations are facing, and something EWN’s editor-in-chief Katy Katopodis is well aware of. “We face the same kind of challenges as any other; it’s more about working smart than throwing money at a problem. Innovation has always been a massive part of the EWN strategy and we constantly strive to allow the members of our team to ‘play’ and experiment in different spaces.”
Online editor Sheldon Morais says EWN has only scratched the surface when it comes to the potential for data journalism: “Our aim is to grow our knowledge of different tools and to think about stories in a more visual and compelling way.”