A playful plea for more quality journalismDo you believe everything you read?
Can you tell a real headline from a fake one? This game will help you find out: The infotainment app Newspeak invites players to critically assess media language by asking them to identify which story is real. Read More
Newspeak is an Android app developed by four students from Vienna that challenges players to invent headlines and create hoaxes to deceive their friends. The challenge of telling real headlines from fake ones is exciting and demanding in equal measure – and it encourages critical engagement with journalistic tricks of the trade.
Newspeak follows a simple structure of rounds to play. First, players select a newspaper. Although the app contains a 'starter package' of renowned international papers in different languages, they can choose any online news source that provides an RSS feed, including blogs and satirical magazines, for example. Players then invite their friends via Google+ to join them for a game and pick one of three words that were randomly selected from headlines that appeared in the chosen newsfeed. Afterwards, all the players come up with a fake headline containing that word and, subsequently, try to eliminate the hoaxes by identifying the real headline. Points are awarded for selecting the real headline and for tricking other players. By challenging players to mimic the headline structure of a certain paper, Newspeak is an entertaining way to make people understand and question the way media work.
We talked to Florian Jungwirth, Christoph Wöss, Paul Spiesberger and Georg Steinfelder of Flaming Os, the creator of Newspeak and other socially responsible infotainment apps.
Flaming Os last app 'Woody' made people engage with nature in urban areas. Now your new project aims to raise media awareness. How did Newspeak come to be?
Paul: "We travel on the Vienna underground every day and on the train we see a lot of people reading those free tabloid papers (Gratiszeitungen) with almost non-existent news value. Even if you don't read them yourself, you cannot overlook the lurid headlines. It's often shocking how stupid they actually are."
Georg: "When we had to develop a mobile game-based learning app for a university course, we decided to do something that fosters general knowledge as well as people's understanding of media. The idea was to get them thinking about what quality journalism means – in a playful way. Some people already think about it, but we particularly wanted to reach those who don't. And we thought the best way to achieve this was to develop a game."
In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between quality journalism and tabloid journalism?
Paul: "I think the differences are very obvious. Engaging into today's media makes you realize that quality journalism is dying; the funding is gone. People now expect the news to be free. The rise of the Internet initiated this development."
And the demand for free news causes financial problems for media producers.
Paul: "Exactly, the problem is that news has to be free. The New York Times is trying to sell subscriptions to their e-paper and it's very difficult for them to get people to pay. The problem I see is that quality journalism needs backup funding from readers. If people are not willing to pay for it anymore, papers have to look for other ways to make a profit. So they increasingly start serving advertisers and interest groups, thus losing their independence."
Florian: "Advertisers become more influential when papers become more dependent on their good will. In Vienna, political groups are the main investors in the Gratiszeitungen. This is how they can reach the greatest number of people, because readers can pick them up on the subway for free. That's a dangerous spiral: Tabloids start making more and more money through advertising and the quality of journalism drops even further as a result. They pick up topics that have no serious news value but appeal to more readers. The focus on celebrities, sports, and crime increases, while really important issues like politics and civil rights fall behind."
Paul: "Quality journalism is the Fourth Estate of democracy, and if we lose it we lose something crucial. People have to realize that we need independent media that can fund itself."
But the free tabloids are not solely responsible for the trivialization of topics – the same trend is taking place in serious publications too where the titles are catchy, but followed by little substantial content.
Florian: "The headline is the first impression you get from an article and these couple of words alone can already strongly manipulate our opinions. Media consumers should be aware of this fact. Our goal is to support the critical assessment of journalism. That is also why many newspapers are keen to cooperate with us. They have also realized that they are not reaching enough young readers anymore. Our app is a chance to get them interested in journalism again."
What other effects does playing Newspeak have on the players?
Florian: "Playing Newspeak helps us realize the distinction between quality journalism and the alternatives. Players raise awareness for a certain paper when they challenge others, and suddenly they see the immense differences between the headline structure and wording used by different papers. They can choose which paper they want to use for the game and pick a tabloid or a quality paper, and we think they have the ability to critically assess the differences themselves."
Christoph: "I remember that when I started playing Newspeak myself, it was the first time I started thinking about how which paper would formulate a headline on a certain topic. I had never thought about it before."
What options does Newspeak give players?
Georg: "First, they can play using any RSS feed on the web. You can take the usual daily papers, but you can also try a satirical magazine, for example, which gives the game a different flavor."
What languages is it available in?
Christoph: "The interface is available in German and English at the moment, but users can also play with papers that use different scripts. Cyrillic streams work just fine, for example."
All four of you work and study full-time, so I assume Newspeak is side project for you. Can you still find the time to work on improvements?
Paul: "We like to play games, and we like to make games. That's our passion. And when we create a game, we want to make people think. With Woody, we were aiming to increase awareness for nature in urban areas. With Newspeak, we want to foster media awareness. Although it began as a hobby, it is now playing a greater and greater role in our lives. At the moment Newspeak is only available for Android, but we are also thinking about an iPhone version.""
Christoph: "The next point on our agenda is to improve the interface, make it more user-friendly. A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it takes the fun out of it…"