• Kaaria Quash

Media Analysis: The Perils at Great Falls

In 2013, the Washington Post published an article on the dangers of river rapids in an interactive piece titled “The Perils at Great Falls.” The Great Falls, which flows into the Potomac river in Maryland, had claimed over 27 lives from 2001 to the time the article was written. A combination of turbulent currents, dangerous drops and deceptively calm looking water on the surface has led many victims to their deaths, from naive thrill seekers to experienced kayakers and swimmers.


Though the piece itself is short—roughly 600 words—it links to another Washington Post article that goes more in-depth into the stories behind those who succumbed to the raw power of the rapids. Yet what is so captivating about “Perils at the Great Falls” is that it provides the reader with strong visual elements, many of which are interactive. The combination of text and the user-directed engagement with the interactive elements offers a visitor to the page the chance to meander over the presentation (Usher 2016).


The multimedia elements of the piece are short and simple—mainly a handful of videos so brief they seem like animations—yet they are effective for this reason: they are easy to comprehend and load automatically, so the experience is almost seamless.

The first video is the banner of the page, showing a meandering river with five interactive markers hovering over the stream which give the reader the autonomy to choose the information they want to see.

Video at top of page showing the meandering river

Upon clicking one of the markers, a small section appears underneath the graphic with a brief description of what can happen to someone in that section of the river, accompanied by a video depicting what happens to the human body once it gets caught up in the currents. It is one thing to read about a traumatic death, but it is another to see it. The videos here were striking enough to make me as a reader stop and internalize what I just saw, almost imagining myself as one of the little stick men tumbling about on the riverbed. *shudders*

Interactive map of Great Falls and the Potomac river

An interactive map flanks the right-hand side of the text below, giving us a bird’s eye view of Great Falls and the Potomac river. Clicking certain sections of the map links the reader to the part in the article which talks about that section—for example, by clicking the area labelled “Olmsted Island” on the map, we are taken to the section showing a video of the river near Olmsted Island.


The second section titled “Faster than it looks” (below) shows how someone standing in shallow water near the shore can be pulled into the centre of the channel—where the current is fastest—and be swept away. Here the reader has the option of clicking on one of three markers visible on the video, which will open up an explanation of how someone can get swept away.



Second section: "Faster than it looks"

The last section of the article “Illusion of Calm” (below) depicts a harmless-looking river, with a video of what the riverbed looks like underneath—a series of deep pits, uneven terrain and fallen debris. The supporting text describes how people can get caught up in these areas. This video is not interactive; rather, it is just to give readers an idea of what lies beneath the surface.


In summary, the piece only has three types of interactive elements: videos, which comprise 90% of all the multimedia elements on the page; maps, of which there are four—with one being interactive; and two hyperlinks at the beginning and at the end which link to the longer story on the victims of the river.


Despite the lack of variety in interactive elements compared to a longer story like The New York Times’ “Snowfall”, I feel that the purpose of the article was still achieved: to provide a warning and prevent further deaths for those intending to visit the Great Falls and Potomac river.


Innovation in journalism is largely brought about now by the changing culture and staff of the newsroom (Usher 2016). Whereas in the past the core staff included reporters and editors, it now includes programmers or “hacker journalists”, who are responsible for creating new ways of displaying journalistic content. This article is an example of innovation for its use of interactive multimedia to tell a story in a non-traditional way. The “story” itself is not a structured prose, but rather involves bits and pieces of information supporting animated graphics which the reader can peruse at his or her leisure. The traditional method of writing an article with a sequential progression of events is abandoned for what seems like an informative piece, backed by strong visuals and content which the reader can interact with. The text in this article is not the centerpiece either, but rather comes second to the visuals to which it plays a supporting role. For its use of multimedia, the article won an Award of Excellence at the 35th annual Society for News Design competition.


One drawback I found in the piece was that the videos could not be played on mobile. Considering that mobile is now the most important channel for news (Newman 2017), it would have been more effective if the programmers could have made this compatible across all devices. Emily Chow, the team’s interactive/web designer, said that “Videos on mobile screens always open up full screen which would detract from the overall experience of the story.” She added that time constraints also prevented them from working on a more elaborate solution.


The project team included a reporter, a cartographer, an illustrator, a web designer and a motion graphics designer working around the clock to get the story pushed out within a week. The reporter (Bonnie Berkowitz), cartographer (Laris Karklis) and motion graphics designer (Sohail Al-Jamea) went to the site of the falls together, where they met with the park site manager, the Fairfax County rescue team, kayakers, a geologist and a hydraulic engineer. They were able to take photos of the site, as well as conduct interviews with those they met.


The idea for the piece was inspired by a graphic made for the paper in the 1980's depicting the dangers of Great Falls.


Graphic from the 1980's which gave the idea for the article

The team worked on creating a more modern version of this using the skills at their disposal. HTML5 was used to implement the videos by the web designer after much trial and error with other methods. The page itself was coded using HTML, CSS and light JavaScript. The video below demonstrates how they went about creating the first video at the top of the article.



References

Al-Jamea, Sohail et al. (2013, Aug 10). The perils at Great Falls. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/local/the-perils-of-great-falls/#great-falls


Chow, Emily (2013, Aug 10). The perils of Great Falls Retrieved from https://www.eschow.com/projects/2013/8/10/the-perils-of-great-falls


Hendrix, Steve (2013, Aug 10). In the Potomac’s grip: Why people drown at Great Falls. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/in-the-potomacs-grip-the-deceptively-placid-waters-at-great-falls/2013/08/10/2cd1f3c0-efd8-11e2-a1f9-ea873b7e0424_story.html


Newman, N. (2017). Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2017. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


Usher, Nikki (2016). Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.


Washington Post Graphics (2013, Sep 3). Behind the scenes: The perils at Great Falls. Retrieved from https://postgraphics.tumblr.com/post/60212984234/behind-the-scenes-the-perils-at-great-falls

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