If Flint is the Tip of the Iceberg…

…Where Do I Steer My Boat?

Those who saw The Big Short may have noticed that Christian Bale’s character – real life hedge fund manager Michael Burry – moved from examining the housing market to water. Coincidence? Probably not. If one of the few guys who saw the financial crisis coming now builds his portfolio around this scarce commodity, it’s time to ask a few questions.

The biggest water-related headline these days is Flint, Michigan. It may seem like a leap to go from the abstractions of Wall Street to the very real fears of Flint parents. Yet the essential nature of water relies on our ability to access it. And although Flint is an extreme case, it is not an isolated incident. In Jackson, Mississippi, health officials have advised children and pregnant women to stop drinking tap water. From DC to Chicago, Providence to Greenville, aging infrastructure has led to contaminated drinking water quite a few times over the years.

Any hazardous lead level is, well, hazardous. Approximately 6.5 million lead pipes – many reaching the critical 95-year mark – are still in use. (Remarkably, this a relatively low proportion – though significant, especially when concentrated in single locales.) If this concerns you, you are probably not so keen to rely on the charity of Beyoncé or Cher (or Diddy or Wahlberg) after the fact, no matter how generous or appreciated their donations have been.

There is some movement at the national level to find the funds to start making infrastructure changes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has some information to learn more about the science, regulations, and what to do in your own home. The CDC also has a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program that has been looking into the issue for decades. Or you might prefer to take a local approach – many states have an agency that addresses these issues, such as Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

We might also learn something from our neighbors to the north. Back in 2010, Toronto looked into replacing lead pipes in the city – and some research conducted at Virginia Tech University that demonstrated replacing only part of the pipe would not resolve contamination issues. In fact, civil engineer Charles Marohn suggests that building a new system might be more cost effective than replacing the old ones.

But at the end of the day, you ought not to worry alone. Let us help you talk to your neighbors that are having the same thoughts you are – compare notes, reach out to the right officials, and find out what actions you need to take next. Who knows, you might be able to enjoy your water free of concern, but if not, you will have a whole community behind you.

Community Connection Template

Note: Obviously, the above is just a hypothetical template – to go with the sample “solutions” approach to the water crisis story – that someone with more programming skills than me might turn into a real mechanism to organize people around issues of shared concern.

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Refugee Resettlement in the United States

An explainer on the process refugees go through to relocate to the U.S. — a collaboration from Brittany and me…

From Brussels to Paris, the growing number of terror attacks in the West has bled both fear and ignorance around the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States. The Republican presidential frontrunner has even gone so far as to pledge that he will send resettled refugees back to Syria if elected. Yet, for all of the hand-wringing about the influx of potential jihadists, official government data tells another story.

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in March of 2011, just under 2,200 refugees have been admitted into the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, of the 70,000 refugees the United States was able to legally accept in the 2015 fiscal year, roughly 25% were from Burma, 20% from Iraq, and 13% from Somalia.  While the Obama Administration will raise the refugee cap to 85,000 to accommodate 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, Syrians will still make up less than 12% of the total admitted refugee population. Also, while the average processing time for refugees is 18 to 24 months, Syrian applications can take significantly longer because of security concerns and difficulties in verifying their information. Aid organizations currently put the actual processing time at 33 months.

Rather than just throwing more numbers at the reader, we decided to let he or she engage with the Syrian asylum application process directly via Typeform. A survey with style, easy on the eyes Typeform allows the designer to simulate a conversation through “logic jumps”, which adapts the survey based on a respondent’s answer. Try your hand at the journey here.

Curating Breaking News: Explosion in Berlin

Even as the BBC and AP news alerts came in over the weekend, I found myself constantly behind the times — at least in terms of catching the initial reactions and isolating the on-the-ground perspectives among the innumerable retweets, news posts, and distant reflections.

Monday morning, I happened to catch a relatively smaller-scale story of a car explosion in Berlin only a few minutes after it was posted. Although it was still some hours after the occurrence, it was the best chance yet that I had to parse the social media ‘verse before it ballooned beyond all recognition. This Storify was the result.

Of course, the exercise was not without its challenges. A few reflections:

  • I purposefully chose an international news story because I wanted to experience the language translation issue. As I don’t speak German, I certainly was limited. Jumping back and forth between Storify’s more flexible search tools and the native Twitter site where rough translation is available was less than convenient.
  • I thought images would be a helpful shorthand given the language barrier, but this was less useful in this context since many were sharing the same 10 or so images that appeared to be originally distributed or picked up early by news agencies.
  • To that end, looking at Getty’s image feed on Storify was a helpful comparison tool. So was seeing the patterns of retweets and duplicated images in Storify’s chronological format.
  • In this case, at least, early reports — especially video — were heavy on the news reports. Perhaps the story was too small, in the scheme of things, or perhaps I was still too late to the API.
  • At least on Storify, Twitter was by far the most prolific source of content — by 100-fold, at least. It would be interesting to see what types of stories get more content generation more quickly on other platforms (and how that content might be leveraged).
  • Figuring out the right search terms and parameters to cut through the chatter on Twitter was a start — though never completely helped to avoid some of the more confusing hashtags (where did #russia come in??). Likewise, it does become increasingly apparent how little you know who the users on social media are, or where the line forms between actualities that are accounts vs. reactions.

The Local Foreign Correspondent

(BOSTON // March 1, 2016) Back in 2011 – thanks in large part to extensive reports from the American Journalism Review – many media commentators lamented the end of foreign reporting as we knew it. The number of international correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers had dropped 25% in less than 10 years, and many papers were shuttering their overseas bureaus altogether. Some like The New York Times, NPR, and AP were expanding their coverage, but they were largely the exception to the rule.

Of course, this was not new information to the careful observer – some had been warning against this trend for years, and were already commenting on alternatives to the legacy outlets’ most unsustainable models. Would it be citizen journalists coming to the fore, or perhaps media partnerships with on-the-ground NGOs?

The conversation continued in subsequent years, now welcoming to the fold of foreign reporting (or at least acknowledging the growing presence of) the digital natives like Buzzfeed and Vice. A recent study even highlighted the role of Kickstarter campaigns in overcoming the often significant financial barriers to global journalism in its traditional forms. (For the record, 658 journalism projects were crowdfunded on the site between 2009 and 2015, 36% of which proposed work across one or more of some 60 countries.)

The discussion will go on – a constant evolution in the face of rapidly changing technology, fluctuating cost structures, and ever-shortening media cycles. Yet this dialogue could easily overlook perhaps the simplest solution to maintaining a deep bench in overseas coverage: local hires. This week, I spoke with one such journalist, Wenxin Fan, about reporting from his native China for U.S.-based and international publications.

Wenxin has seen shifts in the overseas newsroom firsthand, though he is not sure whether the downsizing trend is long-term. In fact, the changes in his world have not all been negative – many of the publications he has worked with, including the Times and also Bloomberg, have been on the upswing in terms of international coverage. The latter, in fact, has doubled its presence in China since he joined in 2010. With the growth of China’s economy, Wenxin has also seen international interest in China-based stories expand from predominantly political themes to include more financial and human-interest pieces.

The depth of coverage, he says, is also improving. A number of long-form stories are now published that might not have been produced even 10 or 20 years ago. As the country opens up, foreign reporters have increased ability to reach remote areas off the beaten path. Wenxin fondly recalled one recent article that profiled a team in Western China playing American-style football. This was one example, for Wenxin, of the foreign press tapping into the minds of young Chinese.

As a local, however, Wenxin cites two things that it is difficult for his expat peers to garner: access and nuance. “When we look at a story we think about the same things,” Wenxin reflects on the mechanics of reporting, “the only difference I can think of is nuance.” For him, nuance is more than just detail – it means that by virtue of being a local and understanding the context, he approaches news with “an extra layer of skepticism.”

For instance, when Quartz reported that China was planning to ban the foreign press, Wenxin instinctively questioned the story. As it turned out, the interpretation of the law’s language and the historical context it operated within were critical to understanding the purported ban. Of course, being a local is no guarantee (the Quartz reporter was apparently from Hong Kong), but Wenxin has found that he, at least, is more likely to dig deeper for the truth. “The issues,” he says, “are complicated, and that complexity sometimes gets lost.”

Nuance is where the changes are happening, from Wenxin’s view – but not always where the main story is. The few social media platforms that still flourish in China are “where the news happens,” and allow Wenxin and his colleagues to get a quick sense of what is going on in the community. Although the expat reporters follow this content also, they all have the challenge of getting a pitch through their U.S. editors. Wenxin, at least, can typically identify more quickly a story than someone not intimately familiar with the language and culture.

That familiarity also earns the local reporter credibility and the celebrated access every journalist wants. Having “a Chinese face,” as Wenxin puts it – regardless of where you are actually from – can make a huge difference in earning the trust of a potential source, or simply getting in the door. It also helps him reach more local voices, including experts, to quote in his work. Officials, Wenxin finds, are also more likely to treat Chinese journalists as a known quantity. In the end, the local might get a different answer than the expat, even if it is at least partially because the official feels (rightly or wrongly) that they have more control over the Chinese reporter’s output.

Certainly, the local reporter has his/her own set of challenges. In China, particularly, Chinese journalists are banned from reporting for foreign publications. They are typically researchers or news assistants instead, and must take some care in what they choose to cover. For this reason, as well as the value of an outsider perspective, some have championed the necessity of the expat reporter.

Wenxin himself notes, “I don’t really know my readers very well.” He must rely on his editors to decide what will have traction back in the States. The sparse feedback – often through the inconsistent lens of comment boards – can easily have the adverse affect of making Wenxin “feel more foreign” to his readers. Though he welcomes the challenge, Wenxin affirms that it is a constant struggle to think globally in his reporting. At the end of the day, he feels better when a story is translated into Chinese and he can readily see his local community’s response. “That’s when I feel I have a readership,” he says.

Like any solution to the shifting tides of foreign reporting, local journalists cannot save the system in a vacuum. Yet Wenxin and his colleagues could play an important role. He was careful, however, to bring our conversation back to the money at the center of the equation. “The need for foreign reporting will always be there,” he suggests. “This issue really isn’t do we hire a local guy, or do we hire, you know, an American reporter to cover – a lot of papers hire local guys – the thing is do you have a bureau? Do you have a budget to spend on those stories?”

We will have to wait a little longer for the answer.

Cambridge Canvassing for Hillary


I attended a canvassing event for Hillary Clinton’s campaign this morning in Cambridge, and challenged myself to cover it using video – specifically, using the Videolicious app that Gordon shared with us a couple of weeks ago. Having made my deadline for filing the report, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on some points that may be of help and interest to the class.

But first, I’d like to express my gratitude to a volunteer featured in the report – also named Hillary – who very graciously allowed me to accompany her for part of her canvassing activity, was more than happy to talk with me, and didn’t object to my capturing a few moments on digital film. (Hillary, if you ended up reading this, thank you for your kindness and of course, enthusiasm!)

On the tool:

In many ways, Videolicious is an amazing and promising app, but – particularly if you do not have an account (which are only available through institutional licenses) – there are some limitations:

  • Most importantly – personal, mobile-only accounts can only record 1 minute of video. Though I might have used different software, I wanted to give this tool a try given its intuitive interface and potential usefulness “on the go” for the future. If nothing else, this aspect did make the assignment an important lesson in editing.
  • Many special editing features and higher quality materials (i.e. HD video output) are also not available in the personal, mobile-only accounts.
  • The way the camera is positioned on your phone makes framing the “talking head” portion of your report somewhat challenging – although I tacked up my script, unless you have a well-placed teleprompter or can speak extemporaneously it is even more difficult to balance eye direction, background, and lighting with the practicalities of delivering the report in a short timeframe and in a less than ideal space.
  • Some video clips are too short to capture in the final piece, and get skipped over – it may be an understandable cutoff of around 1 second or less, but should otherwise have been enough frames recorded for use in other software.

On the experience:

I truly enjoyed this opportunity to get out in the field, interact with people and ask questions, and think journalistically about the coverage of an event. And although writing a text-based piece would have been its own kind of challenge – given that my background is more in communications than traditional journalism – I am glad that I pushed myself even further out of my comfort zone to try the video. (Though I will admit that being able to use my photography skills was, at least, a small comfort.)

With the app-imposed time limit, I found that I cut a lot out of material that I might normally include in a story – this made me think about the importance of marrying visual content like video with the context of written (or other) content. All of these components were also a lot to think about at once – capturing soundbites, images, video, names, etc. and thinking about publishing across multiple platforms is a lot for one reporter to do, but is becoming more and more common.

On participatory media:

Provided that our class is considering citizen participation in journalism, it seemed appropriate to attend a very civically- and politically-minded event. It did not disappoint. For example, state legislator Sal DiDomenico made several comments about the media’s role in buoying Bernie Sanders’ chances against Hillary Clinton in the interest of a contested primary. Every speaker, meanwhile, made a point about the important role played by the volunteers in attendance in getting the word out about the candidate. People become an even more integral part of the message and dissemination of media content.

My guide to canvassing (the volunteer Hillary mentioned above) also had some very sharp reflections on how she and her peers have been using social media in this presidential race. The “staying power” of repeated headlines (via social media sharing) stood out to her. And she was also amazed at how quickly a tweet she had sent, for example, was picked up and retweeted into the wider conversation beyond her immediate circle.

Given the caliber of speakers, it is not surprising that members of the press were in attendance. Yet there seemed to be all kinds – a reporter from the New York Times with a trusty notepad, another who appeared to be recording for radio or other audio formats, and several individuals on their phones like me. It made me wonder how different our takeaways and reports might be.

Assignment #1: Carebot

carebotRecently, I learned that the NPR Visuals Team is building a new tool “for gathering, analyzing and distributing better analytics” about audience engagement. That tool – Carebot – is still in the development stage, with a prototype due out in a couple of months. The implications for creating “affecting stories, not clickbait,” however, make for an intriguing addition to the media landscape.

The Concept

NPR Visuals has been stewing on this issue for awhile now. In the words of their senior editor, Brian Boyer, NPR Visuals exists to “make people care.” But how would a newsroom determine that their audience cares? Carebot stems directly from this question.

  • Visual content is uniquely positioned to bring people to a difficult topic, or a news story far removed from their own lives. But the “care” concept could apply to any news piece.
  • Traditional metrics of journalistic success such as pageviews and unique hits have been gamed and exploited (think cat videos vs. a long-form investigative piece).
  • NPR Visuals has started analog explorations of how their audience engages with their content, and how they think about their user in the content design. Is it a matter of completion rate? Time spent per page? Calls to action?
  • They hope that Carebot will be a more immediate, comprehensive, and transferrable tool to assess the impact of news storytelling on the audience they want to reach.

Where They’re Going

With the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, NPR Visuals is hoping to build a new way to count and calculate the numbers.

  • Carebot will pull data from multiple sources, including Chartbeat, Google Analytics, and social networking sites. It will focus on both engagement – likes, shares, etc. – as well as time spent with a story and stories finished.
  • The measurement output will rely on a formula – still TBD – that spits out a “care metric” for any given piece.
  • Potentially, 1,000,000 pageviews could be outpaced by a story with 1,000 views and 100 shares – depending on the calculation and weight of other metrics.
  • Carebot is likely to be built into a website – and be shared as open source programming – but isn’t likely to be an analytics dashboard. Boyer describes the need to get journalists’ (and their bosses’) attention, perhaps with a simple email or other notification on their stories’ success in making their readers care.

Why It Matters

Carebot will join a small host of other publications and organizations developing new ways to “emphasize caring over clicks.” But this isn’t just a navel-gazing exercise, or a renewed gnashing of the teeth over viral media. Carebot asks important questions about impact and success, financial support, and what we want from journalism.

  • Of course, NPR (with its sponsorship model) doesn’t have to worry about advertising money as much as the next guy. Yet with some evidence that advertisers want more specific metrics, too, Carebot could help bolster the importance of the less “clickworthy” – but more worthwhile – news stories.
  • For NPR Visuals, Carebot will “test an idea: that better analytics make for better journalism.”
  • Measuring audience engagement turns the industry back to the idea of user satisfaction, rather than the satisfaction of other stakeholders.
  • If caring is celebrated, will journalists be freed to do different work? Will that work be better? More meaningful? Edifying? Representative? Lofty questions, indeed, but Carebot could be a start to answering them.
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Ashley’s Intro


Hi, I’m Ashley – and I’m guessing you’ve heard the old adage, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” I’ve taken that idea to heart, as have many across media, business, and government. We know that we remember what we see four times more than what we read, and process images 60,000 times faster than text. Yet we’re still figuring out how to best harness the true power of visual content (produced by professionals and citizens alike) – and strategically address all of the challenges that come with it.

This is particularly evident in today’s global context, where a photo, video, or infographic can deliver an unparalleled immediacy of (mis)understanding. That’s why I earned degrees in both foreign affairs and photography, and am currently a Master’s candidate studying international communications and business at The Fletcher School.

At the moment, I’m focused on initiatives like revitalizing one of Fletcher’s program and research centers to explore the newest trends in journalism, cyber, and public diplomacy. Immediately prior to graduate school, I worked in external affairs and project management for a DC-based NGO that serves as a center for global leadership development. And most importantly, I’m looking forward to learning from all of you!


Posted in Bio