Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, online at Write to him at

All journalists can look back decades or even just a few months to see examples of the “shiny things” that distract us from our core work as information gatherers and sharers.

Journalism scholar Kim Bui recently coined the term “Shiny Things Syndrome” to describe a phenomenon in which individual journalists and the industry as a whole lose focus on their most critical function in society – reporting, writing and imparting important information – by getting distracted by the latest newsgathering or news delivery gadget or technology. The term is a takeoff from “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon which similarly refers to a loss of focus by people presented with a peripheral or distant image of something shiny, attractive or exciting but who then become less interested in the shiny
thing as they approach it.

Who hasn’t seen that in journalism? I recall when the World Wide Web first arrived on one library computer in our newsroom in Eau Claire, Wis., and it was only to be accessed for a few moments and only with permission of the editor. Later, the internet evolved into a highly useful reporting and presentation tool, only to morph into the major distraction
and time drain it has become for many journalists.

Recent examples of journalistic shiny things include 360-degree cameras (limited usefulness and not end-user friendly), the overuse of video that doesn’t advance a story (long, unedited videos often distract), the insistence on using Facebook Live shots by ill-prepared or untrained reporters (how many rocky camera shots and wind-addled audio can one viewer take?), the unending focus on social media (making news free to users is not a way to pay the bills), the tweeting and endless retweeting of someone else’s article or opinion (retweets are not endorsements of the original message, I promise!) and techno-focused storytelling with virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the frightening concept of
automated reporting.

Let me say for the record that any of those devices or delivery methods can work well and offer freshness to news reporting and presentation, but only when they advance the meaning and depth of a story. In my experience, the use and frequent misuse of those methods is often driven by chain ownership and corporate metric-watchers who need to appear cutting-edge without consideration of what’s actually happening in local newspaper offices or in the field.

Flatly stated, the use of shiny new technologies should never overtake basic reporting and storytelling as the primary function of journalists. So how does one swim against the techno tide and not lose their job?

Here are some tips for reporters and editors to stay focused on what really matters.

  • Think about stories holistically before and during the reporting process and thoughtfully consider ways to enhance storytelling. If video from a breaking news scene is doable, move forward on that. If a photographer will enter a confined or wide-open space, give a 360-degree camera a try. If a live camera shot imparts critical information in a timely, meaningful way, go for it. Never use technology on an important story to satisfy ego or a corporate directive; remember that readers come first.
  • Slow down, be patient, talk things through more and plan. Thoughtfulness, sharing ideas, playing devil’s advocate, planning coverage ahead of time, considering which new newsgathering and delivery methods are likely to work – those are proven methods for covering and presenting news in a meaningful way.
  • Make reporting the first point of focus in story conferences and always think about reader needs. Be sure reporters know that getting the facts (and getting them right) is more important that using new technology.
  • Find new ways to innovate that impart meaning and aid reader understanding without solely relying on technology. This could mean combining an old-school map with digital data points to create a useful online graphic that can flow into print, or tweeting from a scene with a photo or brief video to tell and show what’s happening.
  • Shiny Things warning label: Always train and practice before use. If video or animation is important to your newsroom and will work to improve storytelling, be sure that newsgatherers are trained and up to speed on how to use new technologies before they enter the field and fumble around.
  • Identify experts within your team, and then create opportunities for training and sharing what works, what doesn’t and how to avoid pitfalls.
  • Be sure to triage what works and what doesn’t. Reflect back on the use of technology and then celebrate the victories no matter how minor and quickly move on from the disasters with a lesson learned in your pocket.
  • Always remember that possessing an awareness of “Shiny Things Syndrome” is the first step to preventing technology from running amok and losing focus on the critical function of finding facts and telling important stories.