Digital Stories Dramatize Information’s Role in the Lives of People and Communities

What’s at stake when local news and information flow doesn’t serve all members of a community equally well? How can people respond?

These questions lie at the heart of Information Stories (http://informationstories.org), a series of twelve three-to-five-minute videos (plus an introduction and conclusion) making their official online debut this week.

Sample from Informationstories.org

Some are stories of journalism.  Examples include the struggle of a labor union secretary/mother of five to get media coverage for asbestos-related disease in Libby, Montana, and the creation of an online newspaper for the “news desert” of southeast New Hampshire.

Others are stories of activism.  The executive director of Native Public Media describes the drive to bring broadband to Indian Country.  A faith-based community organizer discusses a campaign to help poor people overcome the powerlessness caused by living “in an information vacuum.”

Inclusiveness is a major theme to Information Stories.  For example, an undocumented immigrant tells how he pursues art and community organizing to make visible the immigrant experience.  A young radio reporter and producer from Chicago reveals how he learned to listen to, not just speak to his community.  A high school student relates why she thought it important to make transgender people a more visible presence at San Francisco Pride.  A “hard-of-hearing” English professor talks about making the voices of deaf students heard. 

Other storytellers include a small town mayor, the manager of an online dialogue space, a community television board member, and a convener of community conversations about public health.

Information Stories reveals the loss when local information flows leave stories uncovered, concerns unaddressed, or voices left out – and the gain when these exclusions don’t happen.

The series idea was conceived by Ohio State University law professor Peter M. Shane and Columbus, Ohio filmmaker Liv Gjestvang.  In 2008 and 2009, Shane served as executive director to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.  Gjestvang serves as Faculty Programs Manager for Ohio State’s Digital Union. 

The Knight Commission was a diverse, bipartisan group of 17 leaders in media, public policy, and community, who were organized in 2008 to articulate the democratic information needs of America’s 21st century local communities.  They were asked to recommend remedial measures where the Commission perceived that community news and information needs were not being met.  Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and organized through the Aspen Institute, the Commission maintains an active, resource-rich website (http://www.knightcomm.org).

As the Knight Commission was preparing to issue its October, 2009 report, Professor Shane approached Ms. Gjestvang for help in making the Knight Commission issues more compelling and concrete for the everyday public.

“The Commission explained why ‘second-class information citizenship is looming’ for many Americans,” according to Professor Shane.  “I am hoping to motivate activists around the country to pay attention to their local information ecologies.  We want them to ask whether everyone in their communities gets the information they require to meet both their personal and civic needs.”

Shane emphasized that Ms. Gjestvang and he also intended the diversity embodied in Information Stories to send an important message.  “We wanted to come as close as we could with just a dozen storytellers to assemble a kind of American tapestry.  The last line of the Knight Commission report is, ‘The “information issue” is everyone’s issue,’ and we wanted to drive that home,” Shane said.

The Information Stories storytellers learned how to produce their narratives through a July, 2010 Digital Storytelling Workshop, co-sponsored by the Ohio State University Digital Union, the University Libraries, and the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. The series was produced with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. The Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. Additional information about the foundation and its programs appears at www.knightfoundation.org.

The Information Stories web site (http://informationstories.org) provides links to both captioned and non-captioned versions of the individual stories.  The site links also to resources that explain how anyone can produce his or her own “information story” and a feedback form to enable viewers to explain how they used Information Stories in their local communities.  A low-cost DVD containing both the individual stories and a “full reel” version that shows them as a continuous documentary is available at http://Kunaki.com/Sales.asp?PID=PX00TWJ703

Ohio State University is releasing the Information Stories series subject to a Creative Commons non-commercial license.  That license allows the stories to be freely copied, distributed, transmitted or adapted for noncommercial purposes, provided appropriate credit is given.

For additional information, contact Professor Peter M. Shane at [email protected].