digital arts & culture 1998
short paper    

Martin Engebretsen:

Hypertext-news and the problem of objectivity

Can hypertext contribute to developing a more objective news mediation?
The interpretation of this question rests on the interpretation of the word objectivity. I will in this context define objectivity as "closeness to reality", and base my use of the term on the following premises.

  • A text is not a reflection of the world, but must be seen as a culturally conditioned construction.
  • This construction is not isolated from the world, but may provide descriptions of the world which are more or less plausible.
  • The plausibility of these descriptions is in a specific way related to the following premises:
    a) The world must be interpreted by the person who is to write the text
    b) The form of the text determines its content

My assumption is that the use of hypertext can have an influence on both of these "premises of truth", especially in relation to the fact-oriented context of journalism.

a) Being conscious of the claim that a certain event is to be accounted for through a linear text, the journalist is forced into a "strong" interpretation of the fragments of reality that she has access to through observation and source information. This is due to the convention that the linear text (unlike the world) demands cohesion and coherence: Its textuality relies on an obvious logic relation between all succeeding elements as well as a unifying overall structure.

Hypertext can be positioned on a higher level in the language system than the text level. As sentences are linked together to form texts, texts may likewise be linked together to form hypertexts. In a hypertext the relations between the elements may be explicitly defined or not defined at all, according to the choices of the constructor. And although the text material must be given som kind of structure, there is no claim of a structure that primarily supports a semantic stringency or a unifying, underlying logic. Hypertextuality thus invites to a more open structure of meaning than is the case with linear textuality, and the hypertext constructor is therefore not confronted with a similar demand for reality interpretation.

b)The traditional news text can normally be categorized as a variant of the narrative, a text type which normally demands certain archetypical actors ("heroes" and "villains"), an element of drama and an implied moral. The narrative as textform thereby implies a further filtering and adjustment of the material that the journalist has to her disposal, which may lead to an extensive distance between the original events and the readers’ reception.

Hypertext offers the news producer the possibility of making the "raw material" of the news more visible, as more substantial parts of interviews, documents etc. may be included in a network of information. Also, hypertext offers an almost unlimited number of options when it comes to structuring the various news elements, where narrative elements can be combined with other principles of structure, all according to the specific qualities of the news material. Thereby, the structure of the original events, in that the journalist has apprehended them as first or second hand receiver, may determine the structure of the presentation, and the distance between the event and the reader may to some degree be reduced.

According to this line of thought, one might assume that hypertext offers better tools for objective mediation of reality than linear text does. In what ways such a form of objectivity can be adapted to the specific conditions that govern the production and reception of news is of course a different question.

In the presentation I will illustrate my theoretical point by comparing a traditional linear news text to a network-structured piece of "hyper-news".

Martin Engebretsen,
Agder College,BR Norway
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Last update: 23rd of October 1998.