Webby Honouree 'Kidnapped': A Sign of Things to Come for CBC News?
April 25, 2013By Leah Collins
When Arctic Air wrapped its second season, fans cut to their smartphones every commercial break to watch the saga continue online. Each week on Republic of Doyle, you can play games as you watch with the show's Ride Along app. And if you knew all that and maxed out your data plan hitting the Doyle "Oh Yeah" button, we're only reminding you 'cause the point is this: if you watch CBC TV, there's a place online where the story continues.
And that fact extends to CBC News, even though you probably won't find a Peter Mansbridge RPG any time soon. (Though maybe we should double-check with the digital team.)
One example? "Kidnapped," an interactive digital documentary that launched on CBC.ca last spring.
The piece, which was created in conjunction with the April 6, 2012 broadcast of the fifth estate, is one of 12 being honoured by the International Academy Digital Arts and Sciences for best use of interactive video this year. (The Academy, for the unfamiliar, stages the Webby Awards.)
And the episode gave the behind-the-scenes story of the Graham McMynn case, one of the most-covered Canadian crime stories of 2006. McMynn, then a young UBC student, was kidnapped and held captive for 8 days before his successful rescue.
"Kidnapped," the interactive feature, lets you inside the investigation as though you're a member of the Vancouver police. As you consider the evidence - often presented through video re-enactments of events (video seen in the fifth estate episode) - you choose which evidence to pursue, thus guiding the story ultimately discovering both the outcome of the case and how police work saved the man's life.
A screen capture from the fifth estate's Kidnapped interactive feature. --CBC
"The interesting thing about that project, I think, is nothing like this has ever been done in news in Canada," says Marissa Nelson, senior director, digital media, CBC News and Centres. Nelson, who was named to the position this month, worked on the "Kidnapped" project as part of the CBC News and Centres team in conjunction with the fifth estate.
And while the fifth estate has previously launched digital features - their piece on the capture of Osama Bin Laden, "Truth and Lies: The Last Days of Osama Bin Laden," for instance, won a Canadian Screen Award for "Best Digital Cross-Platform Project" in March - Nelson says the format of "Kidnapped" was unique.
"What usually happens is it's a linear experience," she says. "Kidnapped," however, lets users explore the facts as though they're choosing their own adventure. "It's deconstructing the linear story-telling."
In addition, on the day of the original broadcast, fifth estate viewers were encouraged to interact with the documentary by participating in polls and quizzes through social media or by scanning a QR code with their smartphones.
If you've watched a reality program like CBC's Over the Rainbow, that sort of play-along feature is increasingly familiar.
But does it have a place in any investigative report? "No. No way," says Nelson. "We couldn't have done this with Osama Bin Laden," she says as an example, referring to the fifth estate's CSA-winning interactive piece.
"We knew there would be questions," she says, "'Why are you making a video game out of one person's misfortune?'"
And Nelson says the team responsible for "Kidnapped" was considerate of various factors in the program, and interactive feature's, making. The McMynn family was on board with the project, she says, and the CBC team had police co-operation. Ethical discussions were held with senior managers throughout the process, she says, as well as discussions with CBC lawyers.
And the case itself was selected after the project was launched.
"Digital wasn't an afterthought, it was really driving the process," says McMynn, who explains producers had the idea for an interactive true-crime project before they integrated the McMynn case. "This particular story was perfect because it has a happy ending. Graham McMynn is fine," Nelson says. "It was also a very complex, very well known case. Those three components were the things we were thinking of."
Also under consideration: why stage a digital project of this nature in the first place?
"There's a strategic reason to do this, because I want to bring investigative journalism to a new and younger and digital audience, and I want to tell those stories in a way that's actually engaging those audiences in a really meaningful way," says Nelson.
Time spent on the fifth estate's website increased when the "Kidnapped" interactive feature was launched, Nelson says. (Figures were not made available.)
And how well will a project like "Kidnapped" represent what CBC News audiences will see going forward?
Because of the scale, Nelson says that something like "Kidnapped" will remain uncommon. "They're huge projects and they take a lot of work," she says. "We could do it every year, but we couldn't do it every month."
But the idea of doing something new, something you've never seen before, is always important.
Says Nelson: "Being an innovator in this country is a core role for the CBC, and it has a value in the broader economy," says Nelson. "I hope that we'll just be an innovator in Canada."