Posted on December 3, 2008
‘Curation,’ and journalists as curators
The Latin root of the noun curator means “to care.” We know the word primarily in connection with museum collections, which may make some folks think of dusty old boring things, or preserving history — and maybe that’s not your idea of what journalists should be doing.
But when Jeff Jarvis talks about “curation” — which he has been doing for quite a while now — he means the activities of sorting, choosing, and display, which museum curators perform based on their extensive knowledge of the subject area of an exhibit.
Think about any museum exhibition you have enjoyed, whether it presented ancient artifacts from Egypt or spacecraft from NASA. Then consider the job of the museum curator. If we talk about curation, we refer to more than a simple act of filtering. (Filtering calls to mind that old journalism standby, gatekeeping.) I visualize “filtering” as the process of straining chicken broth, in which one dumps all the junk from a giant soup pot into a strainer, and what comes out is nice clear stock. This is also something that journalists do, but it can be pretty useful to differentiate that from curation.
There are also times when we need and want organization. That could be curation … It could be summary (which Wikipedia amazingly provides even and especially in providing snapshots of knowledge in big news events — though without the curation of links). In the Mumbai story, GroundReport curated — or organized and facilitated — people, finding Twitterers in Mumbai … to report and write (Dec. 2, 2008).
Jeff has defined curation as “the need for editors to create order, to correct and vet” (Nov. 3, 2008), and while that nicely distinguishes curation from reporting, it sounds a lot like plain old editing.
So I’m going to list some aspects of journalistic curation that fit well, I think, with the museum version of curating:
- Selection of the best representatives: If a museum curator has access to 10,000 small clay tokens from ancient Iraq and Syria, how many — and which ones — should appear inside the glass case? If a journalist is going to provide links to reliable sources about planning for retirement (or breast cancer, or choosing a college), which are the best, clearest, and most up-to-date?
- Culling: How many links is enough, and not too much? If the museum curator puts 100 of those tokens in one case, my eyes will glaze over.
- Provide context: Will you include a bit of explanatory text to show me how each source differs from the others? Why am I looking at this one? Where is it from? How old is it? Why is this one significant?
- Arrangement of individual objects: Within one display case, or within a room, the museum curator is considering how different items work together or complement one another. In modern museum displays, all emphasis is on the audience, the people who visit the museum, and their experience. Journalists could stand to learn something from that idea. The audience is not coming from the same place as you are. When journalists are compiling a set of assets for one story, or a set of related stories, or a single story composed of multiple accounts, what arrangement or juxtaposition will be most effective in providing a good and satisfying experience to the audience?
- Organization of the whole: In larger exhibits, the museum visitor walks through a series of rooms to view the objects on display. This is another aspect of the experience, and it can be successful, or it can fail by confusing or overwhelming the visitor. In many successful exhibits, a large or striking artifact is placed in or near the first doorway. This lures the visitor inside. If the pathway through the exhibit is varied and easy to follow, the visitor is likely to emerge with a sense of satisfaction. It’s not important that each visitor stops at each display and reads each placard. Visitors can choose their own pace and their own level of intake.
- Expertise: The curator of a textiles exhibit is not someone who just encountered textiles for the first time last week. More likely, that person has been studying textiles — and their history, production and use — for many years. One of the strongest implications in the word curation is, I think, the idea of expertise. If the journalist-curator doesn’t have a background in South Asia and terrorism, then she’s a poor choice to curate a page about the Mumbai attacks. Her choices will likely be naive, possibly even detrimental. I’m not saying the journalist needs a Ph.D. in South Asia history — but if you work with young students, as I do, you’ll see that sometimes they throw together a bunch of links or resources that would actually embarrass your news organization (e.g. amateur Web sites, or Web sites compiled by high school classes, or commercially biased sites). Seat-of-the-pants reporting can be fast, and errors can be corrected as we go. Curation indicates a more careful process, with research and fact-checking and solid sourcing underneath it.
- Updating: In a standing exhibition, such as Egyptian art at the Met in New York, the curators will change it up every so often. In journalism, depending on the topic, we might change it up once a week, or once a day. But even longstanding “exhibits” could benefit from a face-lift now and again.
Feel free to add your own.