Tag Archives: online news service

Update on Futurity.org: the science news site run by US universities

Last week Journalism.co.uk reported on Futurity.org, publicised as an online news service through which US university departments will publish their scientific findings directly online in a digestible format – a project designed to combat a reduction in science reporting in mainstream media.

We were interested to learn that the site would be included in Google News and asked Lisa Lapin, one of Futurity’s founders and assistant vice president for communications at Stanford University, for more information.

“Google News is recognising Futurity as a news organisation and will be capturing our news for search, and for display within Google News, as they would another news organisation,” she told Journalism.co.uk.

A release initially announced 35 partners, although we now count a total of 39 participating universities featured on the site. All are members of the  Association of American Universities (AAU), an association of leading public and private research universities in the United States and Canada.

We asked Lapin if they would be adding even more to the service:

“As for partners, we wanted to begin with a reasonable size and institutions that have strong research programmes – thus it was natural for us to include AAU universities,” she said.

“To be elected to the AAU is quite an accomplishment and there is already criteria that we didn’t need to develop. There are 62 AAU universities in the US and Canada. We will discuss expanding futurity.org membership, but we would need to develop some criteria to assure that the news remains truly the greatest discoveries coming out of research universities.”

The project has attracted some criticism, as reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

“Any information is better than no information,” said Charlie Petit, a former science reporter at U.S. News & World Report and the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The quality of research university news releases is quite high. They are rather reliable,” he added. “But they are completely absent any skepticism or investigative side.”

Petit followed up with a lengthier comment and example on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and said that press releases published by Futurity should be clearly labelled as such:

“Press releases can and often do carry real news, and in professional and ethical style. In aggregate, they serve reporters and the public in an essential way. However:  They may be science writing. They are not independent journalism that seeks (if not always successfully) to get wide opinion and angles on the news. This is not a fine point. It is essential that the distinction be clear.”

Related: Columbia Journalism Review: Is Futurity the Future?

Reflections on the accessibility of news websites

From the outset of last week’s series on how accessible the UK’s major newspaper websites are to blind and visually impaired users, we tried to emphasize that this was a subjective study based on the findings of a group of individuals with differing accessibility needs and internet skills.

Some responses to our findings, including that from Guardian Unlimited’s Stephen Dunn, raised the issue that no website should be designed to accommodate just one type of user with one type of accessibility needs – as Alastair C’s aptly summarises in his blog post on our accessibility articles:

In many cases people (site owners) jump to fix those issues one person brought up, not realising they may be hampering others using different technologies.

Pages should be designed to be as universally accessible as possible, not targeted at the moving target of different technologies.

As Alastair points out, accessibility testing for news sites needs to be more than a case study approach to widen the appeal of the site’s accessibility.

In an emailed response to the series, blind internet user Gene Asner, said that our findings were less to do with the inaccessibility of news websites and more a result of blind users lacking internet skills.

…work against unlabelled links and work toward better placement of headings and other ways to make movement faster and easier. But for most sites, the real problem is that blind people simply are not skilled internet users…

The only way blind people will move out of the ghetto of a small number of sites that have been especially designed to be accessible is to learn how to function in the real internet world…

While I agree with Gene that some of the problems we encountered were down to technical problems with our software or user (and we’ve tried to point this out in the accompanying blog posts), users should improve their internet skills because they want to and not as an antedote to the complacency of certain sites in dealing with accessibility issues.

Change among sites may be slow, but studies such as this help to highlight that there are issues with accessibility on news sites, whether or not these issues are shared by all.

Indeed, many of the findings of our series were very close to home, given Journalism.co.uk’s own format as an online news service.

We asked Richard Warren from Userite to briefly assess our own site in a similar manner to the newspaper sites featured. Richard made the following observations:

  1. Our pull down menus only pull down when a mouse is used, which is inaccessible to disabled people who cannot use a mouse, and which create a large number of navigational links for a screen reader user to trawl through.
  2. We need to implement some skip navigation/content links to speed up access.
  3. Our ‘Editor’s pick’ tab takes the user to other websites by opening new windows without warning, which is disorientating for the blind user.

Working on this series elements of the way I write and publish will also see change, for example, linking to words or phrases such as ‘click here’ demonstrates poor accessibility. A sitemap has also been added to our blogging section to aid navigation and we are improving the efficiency of the site’s search.

Standardising the layout of a news site’s pages was mentioned repeatedly by our volunteers as a means of improving accessibility for them. But news sites, by their very nature, change lots of their content daily, hourly and even more rapidly.

Similarly, text-only sites might offer a solution to some problems with accessibility – but is it possible to combine the benefits of a text-only site with an appealing and impressive design?

So over to designers, accessibility experts and our users – what could a news site, specifically our news site, do to make itself more universally accessible?