By Lydia Namubiru | @namlyd
Before I left Uganda to start my master’s at the Columbia Journalism School in August 2015, I had been teaching data skills to working journalists in the East African nation. We had trained 78 in the 18 months before my departure for New York.
In June 2016, when I returned home after graduation, my employer, the African Centre for Media Excellence had some news for me: As part of its routine research into media practices in the country, the centre had analyzed nearly 3,000 stories in local news media and found that only four of them had originated from data analysis.
In my mind, this meant that our training efforts had yielded nothing!
The news was certainly bad, but not necessarily surprising. The lack of data skills is only half of the problem here. The other half: The data itself is not available.
I once said to Dean Steve Coll that the biggest difference between practicing journalism in the U.S. (as we did at the J-School), and doing it in Uganda (as I did for years before J-School) was: “You get actual, useful information here when you Google.” That really is true. It’s not that data of public interest doesn’t exist in Uganda. Our technocrats conduct censuses, track crime, study people’s health behavior, track the economy etc., just as it happens elsewhere. The difference is in public access.
In the U.S., microdata from the census is online for download; in Uganda, two years after the last census, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics released more than 1,000 PDFs of tables and text, like this one.
One’s interest is better restricted to the statistics they choose to make public. Getting any additional data from the bureau is a process of indeterminate length. Four months ago, I requested a 10 percent sample of the census microdata for use in data journalism training. I am still waiting for the bureau to even acknowledge receipt of my request. So in the setting of a real, fast-paced newsroom, it isn’t surprising that data analysis would not occur to Ugandan journalists as a source of stories. It’s far easier and more productive, to call up a source for a controversial quote and make news out of that.
Yet when I first saw the evidence that our trainings were not producing data journalists, I wanted to quit my job, regardless of the fact that for this same job, I had overlooked the many great opportunities with which the J-School connected.
“What’s the point of teaching data journalism in a data vacuum?” I wondered to myself.
Then again, what’s the point in quitting altogether?
Instead, I have appointed myself chief data complainer in this country, and luckily for me, my boss is agreeable. A brief job description for chief data complainer goes something like this:
The media centre I work for is taking this role seriously. In August, we acquired an open data portal (www.data.ug) that had once been championed by an expatriate open data enthusiast. When Reinier Battenberg left the country in 2015, the utility fell into limbo. We are reviving it and will publish any datasets we get from my data hunts.
We are hoping that combining open data publishing with data journalism training will put a dent in the near-complete absence of data analysis for news.
I don’t know if this will prove to be the magic formula. “What if it isn’t?” I ask myself many mornings. “Will I end up wasting my training from Columbia’s awesome data journalism program?” But then, I commit myself for better or worse, with the words of Miley Cyrus from that Hannah Montana movie my daughter likes: “There’s always gonna be another mountain. I’m always gonna wanna make it move.”
Lydia Namubiru is a 2016 M.S. graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s data concentration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]]>
The audiences for journalism are increasingly fluid. Whether by search or social media, every story can now find its own readership, beyond that of its parent publication. But while journalists now have more ways than ever to interact with their readers, it’s still hard for them to know exactly who their stories are reaching.
Most of the decisions editors and reporters make are done with a typical reader in mind. Academics call these “imaginary audiences”—a mental image of the people who surround us, formed by a blend of experience, observation and imagination. These audiences affect how we present ourselves to the world. Likewise, they influence what stories journalists pursue, and how.
I’m delighted to be leading a research project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that is exploring the ways writers and editors see and understand their audiences. The work, we believe, raises questions vital for journalism’s survival: How do I find find an audience? How do keep them engaged in my work? How do I know my work has impact? Who am I missing? How do I connect with them?
The analytics tools available in newsrooms report the basics: how many people read a given story, where they came from, and how long they stick around before “bouncing” away. But that data reveals very little about who those readers are, and nothing at all about who they could be.
We’re starting our project by focusing on a single line of reporting—education in New York City. The education beat is important but not over-saturated. It is covered by diverse media outlets (from large national papers to small single-subject websites) and read by large, well-defined audience segments. We’re hoping to use this as a case study with findings applicable across journalism.
Research for the project is well underway, and will culminate in a paper to be published by Tow in the near future. Assisting me will be Efrat Nechushtai, a PhD candidate at Columbia School of Journalism with nearly a decade’s experience as a working reporter and editor.
Along the way, we’re hoping to get to know the audience for our own work. So if you find this interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Just drop us a line at email@example.com and we’ll keep you posted.
James G. Robinson]]>
By Nicki A. Softness | @nickisoftness
With a 24-hour news cycle, journalists face incredible pressure to report quickly, and ideally, first. This speed can result in dangerous and inaccurate rhetoric and information. As molders of public opinion, journalists have to pay particularly careful attention to how they cover terror attacks, and understand how their rhetoric can create a fearful or Islamophobic society.
On October 17, the Tow Center hosted a panel with former Al Jazeera opinion editor Burhan Wazir and Charlie Beckett, London School of Economics professor and POLIS think tank director, to discuss the evolving relationship between journalism and terrorism. At the panel moderated by Tow director, Emily Bell, Wazir and Beckett discussed their reports recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review as part of a series on covering terrorism.
Wazir’s report, “Fear and the Ballot Box: How Political and Media Responses to Terrorism Influence Elections,” explores four elections—in Israel, Spain, the U.S., and India—that followed acts of terrorism. He found that terror attacks indeed have a profound impact on elections, by heightening the public’s sense of security, reframing the political debate, and causing citizens to feel disillusioned with their incumbent governments. Notably, he reports that real-time coverage of attacks can prove detrimental to public trust in the government, especially if citizens feel barraged with inaccurate information.
Beckett’s report, “Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World,” suggests that we are in a cyclical era of “new terrorism, and new news media.” Inflammatory journalism only provides terrorists with larger audiences, and more opportunities to radicalize. Beckett believes this is irresponsible on the part of journalists. “We can’t treat ISIS like Wild West cowboys, or the hipsters of horror,” he said at the panel.
When do you call it “terrorism”?
The panel agreed that the media’s fascination with Islamic extremism is dangerous. The decision to frame attacks by domestic perpetrators as isolated incidents, and those conducted by ISIS as terror, “reinforces stereotypes, and allows for simplistic responses from politicians, and the unthinking discourse we see in politics,” Beckett said. “We need to do better.”
Wazir added that newsrooms constantly struggle with this debate: “There’s definitely a general awareness that if you scream ‘terrorism’ after an event, there will be a price to pay.”
SEO, speed and social media: the role of technology
Bell noted a present-day moral dilemma brought about by technological advances: Even responsible newsrooms that debate language choices often end up choosing inflammatory terminology. “The problem is online search functions.” she said. “If you don’t call it terrorism, people won’t find your story.”
The discussion then turned toward the role of technology companies. Companies such as Facebook and Alphabet’s Jigsaw are actively working to combat hate speech and intervene into the processes of terrorist recruitment, Bell said. Audience members questioned the practicality of these efforts, noting that shutting down terrorist Twitter accounts is like playing whack-a-mole, and prevents the government from monitoring suspects.
However, Beckett added that social media platforms, growing in power every day, are able to conduct profiling in ways news organizations never would. “Right or wrong, these are the places that it will be happening,” he said.
The panelists offered varied opinions on the benefits and disadvantages of these platforms, and of this unprecedented access. Beckett described a circular relationship between open source providers and journalists, nothing that social media may provide valuable source material and instant feedback to a journalist’s editorial choices, but also presents dangers such as groupthink and misinterpretation of trends. He said these dangers are particularly high during breaking news cycles.
Wazir added that this instant feedback cycle has erased some of the nuance that used to define politics and journalism. Speed receives priority over this nuance. Particularly as competing sources gain access to social media audiences, the story becomes broader and less thought-out. Beckett cautioned that while government authorities, bystanders, victims, and aggressors are able to reach communities, they do not yet garner the respect and trust that traditional journalists have.
Nicki Softness is an MPA Candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is also a graduate research assistant to the Initiative on the Future of Cyber Risk. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]]>
As part of that grant, we are pleased to announce a new call for research project proposals. We invite students, researchers, faculty and practitioners in the fields of computer science and journalism to propose potential research projects that fall within our four areas of inquiry:
We are particularly interested in funding people to study the following topics:
You can read some of the previous research supported by the Knight Foundation here. Since January 2015 Tow Fellows have studied a broad range of topics including Virtual Reality, Podcasting, Design and Journalism, Newsroom Metrics, and Solutions Journalism.
We outline the proposal process for research projects in further detail on Submittable, and encourage you to adhere closely to the outline noted.
For more details and to submit your proposal, visit our Submittable page.]]>
Good journalism in the U.S. is fueled by emails, voicemails, FOIA requests and First Amendment arguments. But these are luxuries that many countries do not afford their journalists. Last week, the Tow Center and CJS Global welcomed J-School students and alumni who have managed to work around such limitations—and the threats that accompany them—to produce reporting that is founded on integrity and facts.
Here are five takeaways from the panel:
There tends to be a blurred line between journalism and politics: Journalists in the room hailing from across the world pointed to examples of the marriage between politics and the press. For example, some said it was not uncommon for former diplomats or political leaders to take over major editorial roles—and vice versa, when journalists would go on to embrace titles in government.
The U.S. has it good: One journalist in the room noted that as controversy-ridden as the 2016 election has been, the country is fortunate to have an environment that allows for difficult questions and hard-hitting investigative reporting.
Self-censorship is as big a threat as censorship: Threats, even implicit ones, are built into the system. They leave journalists worrying about their every move and sometimes going so far as to prompt them to leave the country. Some communities, such as women journalists and reporters who have pledged to protect sources, are more vulnerable to these threats.
Social media is both a force of good and bad for journalists: Some reporters in the room pointed to examples of social media as a way to better hold the government accountable, while others experienced it as a way to be publicly shamed for their reporting.
There is no one solution: These stories can be disheartening and there is no right answer or all-knowing savior. However, there are ways to balance good reporting with personal safety. For example, one journalist noted having to resort to making dozens of phone calls to corroborate data after a government agency refused to take calls.]]>
Sharing audio, however, is a tougher nut to crack. Delaney Simmons, in a Nieman Lab article about shareable audio, mentions how, in radio, there’s a “unique problem in that our content isn’t necessarily shareable.” At the core of shareable audio is a set of interconnected design challenges: how to allow listeners to skim podcasts, zero in on the stories and moments they want to share (and support multiple kinds of moments and sharing), create an eye-catching visual component that expresses but doesn’t overshadow the content, and–in the end–let the listener express their fandom the same way a gifmaker on Tumblr might.
In working on Shortcut, an audio sharing tool built in collaboration with This American Life, The Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and The Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, we’ve had the chance to learn from listeners, podcast creators, and prior experiments in shareable audio to develop a tool that answers some of these questions, and opens up more space for other tool builders to explore.
Our design thinking
Our vision for Shortcut–which has remained relatively steady since the start–was a tool that would allow users to access a podcast archive (currently, This American Life), quickly jump through an episode to find their favorite moments, convert those clips into beautiful, transcribed .mp4 videos, and share those videos on social media. (You can read more in Stephanie Foo’s article here.) The very first step in our design process was to take stock of the existing landscape, as a way to catalyze our thinking and start solving the right problems.
We broke the exploration up into several facets: other experiments in shareable audio, other experiments in shareable content in general, and examples of emergent fan culture across the web. So, in addition to audio-based sources of inspiration like Clammr, WNYC’s Audiograms, NPR’s experiments in viral audio, and Audible’s Clips, we also explored the larger design space, like “Why We Love Gifs,” Giphy, Vine, histories of gif culture, research on “emotional subtitles,” Blingee, and more.
Ultimately, we came down to a set of questions and priorities for the kind of tool we wanted to create, namely:
With a long list of design questions, we started rapidly iterating on wireframes. In order to support different types of use cases, we settled on three styles of browsing to play with:
You’ll see a lot of these elements repeated through the following wireframes, but shifted in subtle and important ways.
It’s worth pointing out that this design process was an extremely collaborative one. Every team member—regardless of their official role—provided invaluable ideas and insights along the way.
An initial wireframe. There’s an abundance of input options, from typing in a timecode to reading through a transcript to scrolling through a waveform. We had thought it might be useful to put the fine-tune waveform clipper at the top (as Clammr does), since folks would ultimately be using that functionality the most. However, in our case, we realized it threw off the visual hierarchy: going from timecode (broad) to fine-tune (focused) to scrubber (broad) to transcript (broad, but more focused than the scrubber) was confusing and unintuitive.
A Giphy-inspired version. Here, the user chooses their starting point, and–rather than clipping with brackets–simply selects a duration, making fine-tuning basically the only interaction. Since the transcript was down to the second, we also played around with the idea of letting you “snap to” the end of the sentence, as you might snap to a grid while arranging items in Photoshop. This didn’t include any transcript search, which is a feature we ended up really liking and prioritizing, so we scrapped this.
Our first working prototype. You’ll notice that the hierarchy on the right goes from broadest to most focused (episode scrubber to fine-tune clipper). We’ve added a customization dropdown as well, letting users choose the animation type they want to use for their text. We included all the share options on this page, which we found felt somewhat cluttered.
A more final wireframe. You’ll notice that we’ve winnowed down the 6 (!) editing tools in the first wireframe to just three, and put them in the hierarchy laid out before (from broadest to most focused). Sharing options have been removed from this screen and moved to the preview page. We’ve also switched the side the video preview appears on. Customization has been streamlined from a dropdown (which takes up a not-insignificant amount of space, and won’t necessarily work well on smaller screens) to two arrows arrows on either side of the video–almost Snapchat-like–which cycle through different styles (bouncing, scrolling, etc.).
A napkin sketch by Stephanie after our beta tests. You can see the mobile version shifting into a multi-step process: rather than trying to jam everything on just one or two screens, this gives all the elements room to breathe.
The final product! Jason, one of the developers of Shortcut, came up with the idea to let people click and drag within the transcript to highlight the segments they wanted (rather than having to select whole segments and then fiddle around with the fine-tune clipper). His change was a huge improvement, usability-wise. Eve Weinberg designed beautiful animations that helped showcase the text and give it life.
The final product on mobile. Note how it grew out of the prior napkin sketch. Typically, on mobile, users would have to long-press to select the text they want. Mobile operating systems don’t give web developers the access we’d need to take advantage of this feature (perhaps this is why sites like Medium don’t offer their text selection features on mobile). Fortunately with Jason’s selection code, users don’t have to fiddle with it. They can just tap the first word and the last word to select all the text in between.
Our next steps
The testing process for Shortcut has been a multifaceted one: even aside from QA testing, we need to make sure that the tool feels good, is intuitive for different types of users, works for a variety of types of podcasts, and—hopefully—supports many types of user expression. This is an ongoing process as we refine the tool for its open source release (email web @ thislife.org if you’re interested!).
We’re happily not the only ones tackling this problem for podcasters—New York Public Radio’s Audiogram offers a self-hosted solution where users can upload any piece of audio, and Pop Up Archive is developing a Clipmaker for the AudioSear.ch archives.
We hope our research can inform these likeminded projects, and that Shortcut can offer a unique model for audio creators who want to make their archives more shareable.
In 1899, The Associated Press used Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraph to cover the America’s Cup yacht race in New Jersey, the first news transmission test of what would later be called “radio.” Today, the media industry is once again enabling the exploration of audio news – this time in a new field: voice-activated technologies.
From point-and-click to voice-enabled commands
The internet used to be in a “point-and-click” phase where desktop websites flourished, but now it’s in a “touch” phase as mobile devices and apps have increased digital access to content and services.
Soon, voice commands will usher in a third phase through the “internet of things” and all types of connected devices and experiences. These commands carry promise and the potential to link the fragmented on-demand experiences we see emerging in connected cars, homes and voice assistants.
Global revenue estimates from the smart audio market have increased to $5 billion by 2020, up from $1 billion this year, according to Juniper Research. Devices in our homes (think smart refrigerators) are forecasted to be the biggest driver of growth.
“Audio is a powerful interface for connected ecosystems,” said Mari Joller, founder and CEO of voice-technology company Scarlet. “Other than being efficient – your hands and eyes are free – and often the only viable option for certain use cases like driving, it is also perhaps the most human way to communicate information.”
How do voice-activated systems work?
While these devices can recognize that someone is speaking to them, they cannot necessarily understand what those words mean. The challenging part appears when the system needs to make sense of “What did the president say today?” That requires natural language processing, which is driven by definitions and relationships between words.
The most fascinating opportunity involving natural language processing is the ability to ask specific questions and receive answers. In order to deliver, a smart device needs to analyze the words in a question, retrieve the right answer from a specific data set such as a news archive or feed (like weather forecasts or sports scores), and finally utilize text-to-speech technology to speak back to the user.
It’s likely that news consumers will be able to stop and rewind particular stories on demand in the future. For example, if I asked, “I heard there was an earthquake today. Can you tell me more about it?,” a device would be able to surface a relevant news article or video and then play it to me on command.
“It’s a very exciting time for voice assistants and on-demand audio news,” said Tom Januszewski, a director of business development with AP. “The Amazon Echo, in particular, has surprised everyone with its broad acceptance, and the large number of news organizations already participating on the platform.
“It shows these news organizations recognize the importance of the technology and that they want to get in early.”
What are the ethics surrounding voice-enabled platforms?
According to Victor Vina, an assistant professor at the Pratt Institute, these smart devices raise the idea of “ubiquitous computing,” where we’re surrounded by technology without even realizing it. But we still know very little about the psychological effects of using these devices.
“What are the benefits to our personal lives?” he asked. “As artificial intelligence evolves, it is crucial to consider values such as empathy, identity and privacy, in addition to intelligence, efficiency and productivity.”
As this technology advances, more media organizations will be experimenting to find what works best for delivering news on such devices.
Francesco Marconi is the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.]]>
By Joshua Oliver
The first thing I have learned at journalism school is that reporting often requires you to become an expert in 15 minutes. It sometimes feels like I’m being told to walk into a room, spin around once, leave the room, and then describe what I saw. We certainly need reporters who are effective generalists, but we also need journalists who become experts on their beats — not just 15-minute trainees.
As one seasoned editor told me: You need to know enough that you can tell when your sources are lying to you.
This is especially important when it comes to reporting on the internet. Fundamentally, the internet is an infrastructure system: Roads handle cars. Pipes handle water. The grid handles electricity. And the internet handles information.
But reporting on infrastructure isn’t easy; it is complicated by the fact that so many people don’t have a basic understanding of how the web functions. For more familiar systems, like roads, people have a sense of how they are supposed to operate and what failure looks like. Traffic jams or bridge collapses are obvious. That doesn’t guarantee that people will care about traffic flow or deferred maintenance. But at least we know what we are talking about.
The same is not true about the internet. I don’t have polling data, but I would imagine most Americans think the Border Gateway Protocol is a team of Marvel superheroes and that Distributed Denial of Service is a new policy at the post office. In fact, some people even find it surprising to learn that the internet is really a physical system.
The marketing of things like “cloud” services suggests that the internet is something nebulous and ethereal, rather than a big, heavy net of metal and plastic that has been quietly wrapped around the planet.
Perhaps my favorite reminder of the network’s physicality comes from 2011 when, as the BBC reported, an elderly woman accidentally took the nation of Armenia offline for 28 hours by damaging some cables while scavenging for copper.
Now I have to admit that it was only embarrassingly recently that I learned the basic realities of the internet myself. If you had asked me two years ago, I would not have anticipated that I’d end up studying the internet. A student newspaper colleague once affectionately told me that I am “a non-person” online, and I have earned a reputation for being a cranky luddite and Twitter recalcitrant. Still, curiosity about how the web was changing journalism led me to a course about the internet at the University of Toronto taught by Professor Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab, a research group that combines academic and technological expertise to study human rights and security issues online.
Not only did I learn about the hardware side of the internet, I also realized that studying the web isn’t exclusively, or even mostly, about technology. It is about people and how people interact with technology. From that class, I went on to work at the Citizen Lab researching web censorship.
I’m not close to being an expert in this field. In fact, I am a beginner. But I am a thousand times better informed than I was or ever knew I needed to be.
What I’ve found is that for every bit more expert I get, I find it one bit harder to explain things to people who don’t share this specialty. That is the danger of becoming an expert. From all appearances, it is hard to be genuinely knowledgeable about something and explain it accessibly to a general audience.
This is a problem in many fields, but it’s very relevant to reporting on internet technology. It requires a lot of discipline and intellectual empathy to explain the basics every time. People who master this art deserve a lot of praise. I’m not close to mastering it yet; but I’m working on it.
Joshua Oliver is an M.S. candidate in the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2017 and a graduate of the University of Toronto. He is also a former research assistant at Citizen Lab. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: For more about technology criticism and coverage, please read our newest report by Tow Center fellow Sara Watson.
In case you haven’t heard, Columbia Journalism is kind of a big deal.
It is the center an incredible network; it’s a globally recognized brand name; it has prolific professors, and it is in what is arguably the greatest city in the world. So when I applied—with no background in journalism but not lacking buckets of journalistic interest—it was a long shot.
I had dabbled in media and communications during my undergraduate degree at NYU. But I soon moved on to what I thought were nobler pursuits doing my master’s (also at Columbia) in Human Rights, and working at Amnesty International and the UN. I’d loved the theory side of academia. But I always came back to journalism: Being nosy and telling stories…that was the dream.
I’d written master’s thesis on political activism through social media, and I knew digital was where I wanted to be. Researching important moments in the history of journalism, such as the Arab Spring, made me realize how importance of the role of communications in sociopolitical change; having the resources to do this had been incredible during my time at Columbia. And it occurred to me that an institution like the Journalism School would have the niche connections and know-how that I would need to further this research and put it into real life.
I had travelled quite a bit, and always chronicled my experiences online. When I went to Paris as a fresh-faced college student, my mother insisted that I keep a journal, a travel diary, to chronicle my trip and improve my writing, and my father encouraged it to have me somehow follow in the footsteps of generations of novelists who had had roamed the same streets for inspiration.
In Morocco, I photographed the colors that would have, in any other scenario, clashed horribly, but in that world that represented centuries old traditions. Jordan’s cosmopolitanism had me second guessing the underexposed Western perception of the Middle East, while Australia had me writing about insidious racial inequalities in immigrant communities. I’d thought the common thread in these travels was a thirst for knowledge and diversity of culture. But, it turns out, it was chronicling this diversity—not just living it. I wanted others to experience what I had experienced through my retelling of it. I wanted to be a journalist.
When I entered the hallowed halls of Pulitzer Hall, I knew I’d made the right decision. Allow me to disobey my reporting professor for an instant and use this cliché: The energy is palpable. Everyone around you has the same hunger. The staff is so welcoming and willing to help in any way they can. There are endless opportunities, and you are encouraged to take advantage of every one of them.
I have found my people. Columbia Journalism is kind of a big deal, so when they accepted me, it felt like they had said that I can be a big deal too.]]>
Below is an overview of the day’s three primary sessions, each of which consisted of two lightning talks followed by group discussion. The three themes were selected from among those that participants selected through an open invitation to present.
Our first session featured two talks focused on how to keep data journalism courses both rigorous and engaging. In the first talk, Professor John Wihbey addressed why giving students “messy” data sets was important (even if might seem frustrating at first), while Professor Meredith Broussard shared key strategies for keeping long and sometimes complicated class sessions active and engaging.
Back @columbiajourn today for @TowCenter talk. Mulling election coverage through this lens: pic.twitter.com/gEGwKF9oN7
— John Wihbey (@wihbey) September 21, 2016
Make it personal
Students can be uncritical of both data and tools when they are “too clean.” One way to help students really think about where data comes from and what it represents is to have them do data collection & deal with it by hand.
Get in groups
The value of group work came up in both sessions, in part because it cuts down on the need for “tech support” for individual students. It can also make it easier to give feedback in large classes where, if time is tight, you can both get to everyone and help students prioritize by identifying three things that worked and three things that didn’t in a given project/presentation. Finally, group work is a great place to have students talk with one another about obstacles: It often feels easier to solve someone else’s reporting problem.
While there are a lot of great examples of data journalism out there, there are some cautionary tales as well. Providing students with examples where things have gone wrong (or asking them to do the same) can highlight pitfalls of the practice. Also, having them reflect on their work to determine where they themselves have gone astray offers both important insight and an added learning opportunity.
Don’t forget the story
Unsurprisingly, a focus on story permeated our discussion. Data “cleaning” exercises shouldn’t be undertaken for their own sake, but always embedded in a reporting and story development process. This is another area where working with “messy” data aids the journalistic side of the learning process: Messy data is intriguing, and forces students to dig into the details and context in order to make sense of it. And since most real-world data is messy, it helps reinforce the fact that the kind of data we use in journalism is about real things that happen in the world, rather than a collection of abstract measurements. This can help students develop the emotional and narrative aspects of a data-driven story, driving attention to the all important question: “Why do I care?”
Tech-focused classes can be exciting for students eager to gain job skills, but often this means wading through long class sessions and lots of jargon. To keep students attention (and keep it on the right things) careful planning can keep things moving while still leaving room for spontaneity.
Have a plan
Mix it up!
In the second session, we took on Snapchat and social journalism — two areas of practice that were relatively new to many attendees. Both topics also instigated important discussions, from Snapchat’s imperative towards vertical video to the relationship between social journalism and advocacy — a topic that would return to the forefront in our third and final session.
Although Snapchat is used heavily for personal messaging, in January 2015 the platform launched “Discover” with a handful of publishers. Yet many questions remain about how to use the service effectively for journalistic content.
Why it appeals
The appeal of Snapchat comes largely from its popularity among millennials (it is the 8th most popular download), who value the fact that it is not a “sterile, adult” space.
Approaches to teaching
Snapchat offers a unique opportunity to observe and critique how news organizations are leveraging a new format, and it also provides students with room to experiment with how a story looks across different platforms. Although not all instructors have deep experience with Snapchat, it does offer the chance for students and instructors to learn together.
Snapchat can also be a good segue into other types of short-form visual content, like animated GIFs, “snackable graphics”, Twitter cards, etc. These kinds of materials can often be used across several platforms, including Snapchat.
The Social Journalism program at CUNY takes a service- and audience-oriented approach to journalism, and students there focus on reporting about specific communities. While our discussions touched on a range of issues—including advocacy, business models and engagement—the program’s mix of reporting, technology, data and engagement certainly reflects the direction of many journalism programs today.
Journalism, ethics, advocacy
If social journalism places communities and audience interests at the center, does this make it a type of advocacy, and if so, what are the drawbacks? In the past, some journalistic projects driven by audience suggestions ended up with a focus on watchdog journalism, which is at least some part of many organizations’ mission. If a story gets a strong audience response, is it an artificial line for journalistic organizations to say: “We are going to hide information about how to help the subject of the story” because that would be advocacy?
Ethical considerations around social journalism also work in the other direction, however. For example, is it a problem to cater to your audience’s interests just to increase revenues. And if so, how is this different from the practices of “niche” publication? It also raises questions about the boundaries between engagement and selling a product – even if that product is your own journalism.
In general, instructors’ experience was that students enjoyed being followed, and having their work liked and shared. Many instructors also reported that their students in journalism programs were often quite open about their interest in working for advocacy and aid organizations. In any case, one of the most important lessons of social journalism—and perhaps all journalism—is about how to work with and understand communities that students are covering, not just “parachuting in” when a particular story breaks.
In the 1990s there was a fair amount of resistance among elite news organizations to the perceived loss of editorial control that can result when audience interests take the lead. Yet given that the “one-to-many” relationship between news outlets and audience members no longer as applicable, it may be time for journalistic organizations to explore their role as sources of research, alternatives and solutions for problems of public concern.
Our final session of the day focused on emerging issues in digital journalism, and in doing so returned to some of the emerging themes of the day: ethics, advocacy and new platforms for journalism. The first talk of the session prompted reflections about how to encourage creativity and innovation, without losing sight of the essentials. In the second talk, recurring questions around advocacy and ethics led to some spirited exchanges about traditional journalistic assumptions and the evolution of the field.
Journalism is still a rapidly evolving field, which means the job market is evolving as well. While we all want to prepare our students to be competitive, it’s important not tie yourself to teaching based on what job a student might get. Instead, make sure they learn the basics and encourage students to think about what kind of job they want to get in two years.
For instructors, of course, it can be difficult to always stay ahead of the curve, especially with the pace of change in technologies and platforms used for journalism. One thing to keep in mind is that this presenta an opportunity for co-learning with your students (see Snapchat discussion, above). But you can also focus on the role and function of story on new platforms, whether or not you understand the technology intimately. Differences among platforms also highlight the need to have an “elevator pitch” for every story or project, so that those who don’t know the tech (which may include future employers) can appreciate the piece. Because, as one participant pointed out “if the story is missing, the[se projects] are no good to us.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, one key strategy for innovation encouraged by the those teaching tech-heavy courses was to remove technology from the equation. Paper prototyping, storyboarding and discussion exercises were all advocated as a way to encourage critical thinking and creativity, rather than having students “think through the tool” when they go straight to a particular program or format.
Our final talk of the day focused on changing attitudes about journalism — from both inside and outside the industry. Pulling together conversations from earlier in the day, the discussion focused issues about advocacy, audience, and the role of journalists and journalism in a social-networked world.
Advocacy, independence and investigations
A key question that once again took the floor during this session was: What constitutes advocacy? Does publishing a visualization of how a downtown thoroughfare might look count as “activist” or “advocacy” journalism? (A little extra: See this Sept. 30 interactive from The Times). What about journalism that encourages participation in civic programs, like pre-kindergarten and voter registration? If these activities do constitute advocacy, how does this connect or conflict with other newsroom values? As one participant pointed out, investigative journalism often has an “advocacy” element, yet investigations are considered one of the most important types of even “traditional” journalism.
The question of audience interest also came up in this discussion, with audience behaviors suggesting that journalists’ news priorities do not carry the weight that they once might have. In many cases, audiences are paying increasing attention to the work of advocacy groups because they are invested in the issues they cover.
Social media has also changed the role of journalism in society, as the basics of breaking news increasingly reach audiences via non-news platforms and feeds. As former Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann has highlighted, this necessitates a shift from the “hunter-gatherer” model of journalism to a “value-added” model.
Not Everything is Neutral
With issues of false equivalence dominating the media’s self-reflections this election cycle (including this piece from almost exactly one year ago), the idea of “neutrality” about certain issues arose as well. One participant asked whether there were certain issues about which one could (or should) claim to be neutral. It was also highlighted that certain forms of journalism have always been an exception to the traditional rule of “balance.” As one participant noted, journalism about 9/11 is not expected to represent “both sides.”
Thank you @TowCenter for organizing a thought provoking Educator’s Symposium. pic.twitter.com/ndzdp8f9fP
— Sissel McCarthy (@swmccar) September 21, 2016
The Tow Center’s Educators’ Symposium was just the first in a series of gatherings that designed to provide journalism educators with opportunities to discuss their work and share their insights. If you have questions, comments, or contributions, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Educator’s Symposium.”]]>