Series Blog

Introducing News & Then

It seems like every week there's a new article about the negative effects of Internet culture on American society. We're cautioned that the Internet is making us more isolated, more divided, and less empathetic; or that Twitter and Facebook are eroding our already limited collective attention span and capacity for sustained, nuanced discussion. Some have even questioned whether the Internet may ultimately spell the end of "deep reading."

Our latest American Experience project, News & Then, takes a more optimistic view: that digital media can be a powerful tool for connection and engagement, and can deepen our understanding of the world we live in and the historic struggles that have shaped it.

As someone who trained as a historian, I'm a big fan of encouraging close reading and rich, complex conversations. There's no question that in some ways, the rise of online social networks has reinforced what was already a sound bite-oriented media culture. I can understand the concerns many feel about the health of public discourse and community in a world where "breaking news" today is old hat tomorrow.

I often think, though, that dire warnings of the death of reading and empathy, thanks to the web, are simplistic and rather premature. On top of being a recovering academic (shoutout to my fellow grad school escapees), I'm also a big fan of online media -- precisely because they make discussions and relationships possible that often couldn't happen offline. Twitter allows you to strike up a conversation with almost anyone, and to find audiences not as easily reached through traditional media.

Some of the most thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting exchanges I've had in recent years have been conducted 140 characters at a time -- like this spontaneous Twitter chat about global black identities, immigration, and the differences between being "Black" and being "African American." The question is less whether social media or digital platforms are bad or good for an engaged public, but how to harness them to connect different communities and drive conversations that deepen and complicate our understandings of ourselves and the world we live in.

That's why I'm so excited to be part of News & Then, a pilot project from WGBH that's aimed at addressing this very question. News & Then is an interactive digital platform that brings video clips from American Experience, the very best of traditional media, together with social and new media content on an interactive digital platform. News & Then provides a snapshot of current events and conversations related to social justice and connects them to a larger story: the very American story of people and communities who, through organizing, activism, and simple survival, struggled to narrow the gap between our national ideals of equality and democracy and the realities of systemic inequality and oppression.

As the newest member of the News & Then team, I've spent the last three weeks getting to know the platform and the American Experience videos at the heart of the project -- and finding lots of parallels to what I'm reading in today's news.

In one of the films we've excerpted, "Stonewall Uprising," transgender women and gay men recall "the dangers of drag" and gender nonconformity in the days before Stonewall, when wearing more than "three articles of clothing" of the "opposite" gender was a crime deemed worthy of arrest. These are moving memories of a past era. But to riff off William Faulkner, that past is far from dead -- and not quite past, given reports like a recent Al Jazeera America piece on police profiling and harassment of transgender people. The experiences related include harassment for "dressing feminine" and frequent "stop and frisk" detainments and arrests of transgender women of color, often on the slimmest of pretexts. I had a similar, chilling sense of déjà vu watching historical footage, from "The Murder of Emmett Till," of Till's mother Mamie Till Mobley, touring the country to speak out against white supremacist violence -- much as Trayvon Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, has made it her mission to fight racial profiling of young black men.

It's these sorts of connections we hope visitors to News & Then will make themselves, and bring to their conversations about the pressing issues of our day. At News & Then, you will see American Experience video clips displayed with social-justice themed news and tweets. What I love about this is that it not only connects the dots between historic and present-day struggles within the same communities, but it also illuminates how different struggles intersect with each other in unexpected ways. For example, by selecting the category on labor and class, you can see how issues traditionally reported as workers' rights also connect to a host of other topics, including women's activism, immigration, LGBT rights, Native American communities, and the environmentalist movement. And we'll also connect to other great material -- like interviews with historians, blog posts, and Twitter chats (by the way: don’t forget to follow us on Twitter!).

We're excited to share News & Then with a broader audience. This combination of American Experience's rich archives with new media content, in a framework that can be configured in lots of different ways, is unique, and experimental. Half of the fun will be seeing how you engage with it, and how News & Then evolves in response. I can't wait to see where it goes!

Bio: T.F. Charlton is a Web Content Editor at WGBH and the editorial and social media manager for News & Then

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