Time and temporal narratives in convergent journalism

By LIU TAO and XUE YAXIN / 06-06-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Owing to technological advances, media convergence follows a new timeline, gradually surpassing unidimensional representations and shifting towards a multi-dimensional, complex, and topologically nested structure. Photo: TUCHONG

From classical narrative to digital narrative, significant changes have occurred in the connotations and characteristics of reporting. To understand these changes requires a comprehensive study from various theoretical perspectives. One potential research approach is to return to the basics of narrative studies—time—and seek answers from within the realm of temporal narratives. 

From it, this article analyses the theoretical perspective of digital narratology, focusing on digital media texts exhibiting convergent journalism. Through examining the news narrative domain, time narrative forms and the language of convergent journalism are reframed. By treating time as a method of cognition, this study explores the narratological issues and knowledge production opened or expanded by the introduction of temporal perspectives. In particular, this article examines new problems, new characteristics and new mechanisms of the original temporal narrative proposition in the field of convergent journalism.

The study of time narratives in digital media is based on the classical propositions of narratology—narrative structure, representation methods, and cognitive models. By exploring challenges and connotations in the field of digital narratives, we try to provide a “time scheme” for interpreting these narratives.

Time and narrative structure 

Structure is the framework or “skeleton” of a story, and a reasonable narrative structure can organize multiple events in a reader-friendly manner. In traditional media, content unfolds in line with a sequential structure and order, so the narrative line is essentially diachronic, and the narrative structure thus has a linear perceptual schema.

Unlike the classical narrative’s high dependence on timelines, digital narratives create an entirely new timeline format, augmented by deeply integrated hyperlinks and visual technology. This means that narrative structure formation is no longer limited to diachronic time schemas, but exists as multiple possible “lines of generation.” Through the rhetorical practice of visualization, the convergent journalism timeline is displayed in a concrete and visual manner. The narrative structure, therefore, manifests as an image structure that can be perceived and understood through visual language. Additionally, convergent journalism, due to its hyperlinked structure, introduces “synchronicity” into the timeline, transforming the narrative from a linear logical progression into a complex, nested structure, thereby creating an entirely new temporal framework. 

Among the many data representation schemes, timelines have become a relatively common data visualization method, characterized by using time as an axis and presenting all information sequentially according to its chronological development. Convergent journalism uses the platform’s interface as the framework and readers’ interactions as the driving force to construct timelines. This approach brings the hidden temporal structures within texts—such as “context,” “process,” “trajectory,” and “changes”—to the forefront, allowing them to be displayed visually.

In the narrative system of convergent journalism, once timelines transcend formal dimensions and point to real-world social issues, they do more than simply provide chronological frameworks for news narratives. Specifically, they reveal hidden news clues, details, and facts through visualization through the “unfolding” of time. This process offers a method for reasoning and constructing logical arguments about news content. 

In the visualized spatiotemporal structure, the timeline not only provides a direction and path for the news narrative to advance along, but also creates a visualized “language” for news argumentation. The timeline of convergent journalism gradually expands beyond unidimensional representations multi-dimensional, complex, and topologically nested structure.

Time and representation

As a representation of the real world, news is an important conduit through which people understand society. Since reality inevitably unfolds along a certain temporal direction, the past, present, and future are not only the basic “segments” that describe the real picture but also the fundamental “scales” for imagining its development.

Although the past, present, and future provide a simple structure for social cognition in terms of time, the factual content they focus on is consistent in journalism. The relationship and evolution among these points in time form a chain of inference based on facts. The past is not merely a “prelude” to the present, problems and solutions in reality often require deep research into history for answers. Similarly, the future is not just a distant projection from the present; rather, it entails a deductive structure and development chain based on facts within the progression of time.

Certain latent, concealed, and imperceptible facts transform into direct risks when accumulated. In the field of journalism, the logical connection between the past, present and future is factual, serving as the basis for dialogue. Even when reports focus on the past or the future, they possess a perspective rooted in the present. The value of news they respond to extends beyond “what happened in the past” or “what will happen in the future,” but also in their relevance and significance to the present. Therefore, unlike other disciplines, journalism endows the past, present, and future with an inherent consistency and continuity in the dimension of facts, expanding the understanding of news reporting and bridging the gap in factual cognition. As a consequence, the way that news reporting reaches and presents the past, present, and future becomes an essential aspect of temporal narratives.

Supported by digital technology and based on data, convergent journalism has opened up multiple narrative temporalities, connecting the temporal boundaries of the past, present, and future. This enriches presentations of the past and understandings of the future, pushing the past and future into a relatively independent and mature narrative space. 

With the rise of dataism, reality has somewhat become a calculable and quantifiable computational model. Convergent journalism increasingly discovers, presents, and constructs the world using data. Computational thinking can render reality as a holistic, continuous, and systematic data structure and model. The result is a subversion of the temporal boundaries in time sequences, making the past, present, and future an integrated computational object, interrelated and echoing one another, with data-based dialogue as a foundation. 

Thus, compared to traditional journalism, convergent journalism not only has the potential to reproduce the past and predict the future but also shows narrative potential impossible within traditional journalism. Convergent journalism can unearth facts from the past and make scientific forecasts about the future. At present, our risk culture is characterized by uncertainty, but a generative trend of expansion has begun. Exploring how to scientifically predict future scenarios based on big data becomes a pressing temporal narrative issue, particularly in leveraging the social alarm function of news media.

Time and cognition

As a foundational cognitive framework in narratology, time provides a fundamental cognitive schema, meaning that cognitive activities primarily unfold along the dimension of time and are constrained by temporal logic. The so-called temporal schema refers to perception patterns based on time. In classical narratives, the cognitive foundation of the temporal schema is the sequential logic. Since time cannot be directly identified and captured, audiences establish the concept and awareness of time in two primary ways. First, they do so through the linear dissemination mechanisms of the media itself, which includes the sequential reading of newspaper content or the linear broadcasting of radio and television. Second, time is understood through development and changes to the plot. This may include the progression of events, changes in subjects’ fates, and the trajectory of shifts in history, which help construct the concept and awareness of time. Based on these two foundational cognitive frameworks, time subtly emerges and plays an important role, becoming the underlying structural schema through which elements are organized and meaning is formed.

In traditional news narratives, the temporal schema is anonymous, abstract, and absent. However, in convergent journalism, the temporal schema is pushed into a visible, concrete, and explicit cognitive dimension, reconstructing the organization model for meaning. When time transforms from an invisible state to a visible one, the language of the schema through which time operates also changes. 

In traditional news narratives, time can only function within a linear logic, and the formation of temporal awareness is synchronized with the cognition of news content. The “end point” of time often remains in the present, giving journalists a limited capacity to argue about or discuss the future. Convergent journalism, on the contrary, constructs an entirely new temporal schema—a nested, networked, topological, and future-oriented temporal schema. In this schema, time is not just a “product” to be identified and captured but rather an emergent structure within a visualized representation system. Time is attached to the text and prominent within the content form, functioning as a guiding cognitive schema.

Based on the three narrative dimensions of data, space, and symbols, convergent journalism has formed three different temporal schema languages: a data-oriented temporal schema, a spatio-temporal schema, and a symbolic temporal schema.

In summary, as an important narrative element, time, in the digital text of convergent journalism, has transcended its original logical structure and expanded the forms and language of temporal narratives along three dimensions—structure, representation, and cognition. From the perspective of narrative structure, due to the visual and multimodal characteristics of digital media, the timeline in convergent journalism presents a visualized and nested digital structure. When studying representation, convergent journalism, which is built on data, not only expands the expressive potential of retrospective and predictive narratives but also breaks down the temporal boundaries between the past, present, and future. In terms of cognitive understanding, convergent journalism surpasses traditional temporal schemas, reconstructing temporal understanding through data-driven, spatialized, and symbolic temporal schemas, thereby reshaping the temporal comprehension model of reality cognition.

Liu Tao (professor) and Xue Yaxin are from the School of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University.

Edited by YANG XUE