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Duke Team Writes Code for Interactive Script of PBS Documentary

February 14, 2017

By Adam Beyer

A team from Duke is changing the way audiences interact with and share content from PBS’s Frontline documentaries.

A new “interactive script” feature — which debuted with the Jan. 24 broadcast of “Trump’s Road to the White House”— allows users to take a deeper dive into issues raised in a story and more easily share excerpts on social media.

Led by Philip Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Public Policy and Journalism, a group from Duke’s Rutherfurd Living History Program developed the open-source code that made the project possible. Rutherfurd is part of the Sanford School of Public Policy’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy.

Readers can browse the film’s transcript, click on points they want to watch and share those moments. 

“We were interested in creating an incentive to publish interview transcripts by allowing journalists to annotate them, to add context and other material to those interviews, so that it would create a way to experience an entire interview,” Bennett said. The feature provides greater transparency in the journalistic process, he said.



Although Frontline has already made many of its interviews and documents publicly available on its website, the new interactive feature aims to integrate them more seamlessly into the reading and social media experiences.

Bennett, former managing editor of The Washington Post and a Frontline producer, emphasized that finding ways to establish transparency and credibility in journalism is critical, particularly in light of an election season marred by a focus on “fake news.”

Originally developed for the Rutherfurd Living History website, the capability is part of a broader rethinking of how interviews are presented. For instance, a traditional video interview is not searchable—you have to know the exact time points you are looking for or watch the whole thing. With this feature, clicking on a portion of the transcript, moves the viewer to that point in the video interview.

“Frontline films hundreds of hours of interviews with people to make its films. It produces and publishes text transcripts for the films of a handful of people, the most prominent,” Bennett said. “I envision a time when you could put up the video and the transcripts of all those people and you could create this living archive that you could easily explore and share parts of and even in a way, curate and construct your own documentary.”

Kim Patch, lead researcher for the Rutherfurd Living History Program, said the project grew out of a series of interviews with journalists about their storytelling process.

“We looked at every aspect of the process—interviewing, transcribing, organizing, publishing, and engaging the reader,” she said. “We interviewed 45 journalists, including 12 Pulitzer Prize winners, and talked to dozens of technologists.”

The product is still a work in progress, Bennett said. He emphasized that he hopes other news organizations might adopt the tool for their own journalism. More examples of the feature are available on the Rutherfurd Living History website, along with the group’s code and documentation.