News as Experience: In-class Assignment


News as Experience playing cards



Goal: To create a “Profile of a News Experience” that explores the values, affordances and affective impacts of a particular way of delivering the news

Students will divide into groups of 3-4 people. Each group will randomly choose 5 news experience cards.

From the 5 news experience cards, the group will discuss and choose one to work with in the exercise. Your goal is to create a “Profile” of that news experience based on the questions below.

One or more people from the group should be synthesizing the conversation into a short blog post or infographic that can be posted on the blog.

Profile of a News Experience: Easier Questions

  1. Method of attraction – how does the form attract and sustain attention in an attention scarce world?
  2. How did you find this news? Did you subscribe, link from a friend, turn on the TV, etc?
  3. Did you have to choose it (by searching, clicking)? Or did it find you (like radio, push notification)?
  4. When do you experience news in this way (time of day, during what types of activities)? What were you doing immediately before and immediately after experiencing the news in this way?
  5. Are you doing other things while experiencing the news in this way?
  6. Who else was experiencing the same news? Was it co-present, remote, asychronous?
  7. How did you feel while experiencing the news like this? e.g. Intellectually stimulated, guilty pleasure, obligated to read it, riveted until the end, interrupted but kept coming back, bored, occasionally annoyed, took you out of everyday life, etc.
  8. Did you “do anything” based on the news – for example, share it, talk about it with someone, log it somewhere, remember it later, cite it?

Profile of a News Experience: Harder Questions

  1. What kinds of values are embedded in this news experience?
  2. What is this experience’s “theory of the user”? Who do they imagine you are? Does the experience also have a “theory of change”?
  3. What is this experience’s end goal? Virality & eyeballs? Deep listening? Exposé for action?
  4. How are you empowered through this experience? Disempowered?
  5. What kinds of stories is this method good for? bad for? underutilized for?
  6. What other form could you mash up with this for to create a new product that delivers the news?

In-Class Data Visualization Assignment

The Somerville Happiness Project tried to assess how happy the city’s residents are


Groups of 3-4 people. You have 40 minutes to explore data from the Somerville Happiness Project. Use that time to:

1) Explore the data
2) Pull in other sources of data
3) Figure out what kind of stories could be told
4) For who? Who is your audience? Where would your story/viz be published?
5) Create a paper prototype of your data story or visualization method to share with the class

Data and Resources:

Posted in All

How Close to Home? Crisis, Attention and Geographic Bias

For our final project, Luisa and I created a critical geography of the news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in comparison with other crises that happened that week. We put our main blog post writing up our findings on the Center for Civic Media’s blog. We created a poster and an online tool where you can explore the maps and data related to this research.


Buenos Aires: Solidarity after the Flood

I chose to “report” (curate? curaport?) on the floods in Buenos Aires last week and their aftermath. One thread that emerged for me on sifting through the vast amount of commentary, images, crisis management, and communications was a thread of solidarity. Many people participated in communicating places to help others, expressions of emotional support and commented on how amazingly the whole country had come together. This was in combination with a strong critique of the local, provincial and federal government’s efforts to support those affected. There were (and are still) failures to get power and water restored, lack of response measures, and disputes over the number of dead (53 or 54 depending on whose count you believe).

I wanted the story to highlight the people’s efforts of solidarity and used the video at the beginning of the story to frame the lack of government response. I adopted the Global Voices style of quoting and then translating media for an English-speaking audience. This “story” feels like it could have gone on indefinitely as I could have kept clicking on different feeds and information related to the floods and curating quotes and images. So at some point I had to stop not because of “completeness” but because of time limitations. I wonder if this is often the case for reporters culling from social media? How do you get through all the data???

Here’s the link:


A Comparative Experiment in Mapping the News

For this week’s data journalism assignment I wanted to experiment with a data set that I’m already working with for my research at the Center for Civic Media. We are trying to see if we can extract place information from news articles to map where the news happens, where news sources pay more and less attention to, and what that coverage looks like. Where on the globe does the BBC vs. the NYT vs. the Huffington Post cover? In what proportions? Where don’t they cover? How do they cover those places – with what words and frames?

Check out the visualization here

To answer these questions, the first problem we are facing is a technical one. How do you get reliable place information from unstructured text like news articles? I’ve been starting to evaluate different ways of doing this using a data set of 100 articles each from the New York Times, the BBC and the Huffington Post taken randomly from the same time period. I wanted to use this week to go deeper with one promising technology for this work called CLAVIN, a java-based geoparser that integrates with Stanford’s well-known Named Entity Recognizer. I also wanted to experiment further with D3, a javascript-based codebase that makes beautiful infographics, maps and diagrams (here’s a link to the one I modified for this viz).

This may or may not be backwards (from the standpoint of journalism) but I wanted to create the visualization as a way of exploring the data set to see if there is a story. My idea was to try to create a kind of network map of which countries get mentioned in relation to which others and at what frequency. And additionally, to be able to compare across the three news sources. Which countries get mentioned together more frequently? Does the country of origin of the news source affect the country pairs? Which countries get relatively very few mentions? Does grouping country mentions like this show us anything we don’t already know?

The way the visualization works is that if two countries are mentioned in the same article they get a link. So if an article mentions the US, Canada and Mexico then there is a link between US-Canada, Canada-Mexico and Mexico-US. Links also have a weight. For example, if an additional article mentions the US and Mexico, then the Mexico-US link gets a weight of 2.

You can mouseover the country names in the visualization to see the breakdown of how many links a country has to other countries. This is not all that meaningful for countries like the US, the UK and France which have an abundance of links. But it is more interesting for countries like Puerto Rico, Syria or Venezuela. For example, Syria is most mentioned in the BBC in relation to the US, Russia, UK and France. In the NYT, it is most referenced in relation to the US, Russia, China and Egypt. And in the HuffPo, Syria is mentioned in relation to the US, Russia, China and then tied for fourth place are Iran, Venezuela, Lebanon and Italy. So one place a network visualization like this might help us is in framing who the state actors are that a news source thinks matters in a particular on-going story like the Syrian Revolution/Civil War.

New York Times - Countries with 15+ links between them

BBC - Countries with 15+ links between them

HuffPo - Countries with 15+ links between them

And while this network visualization is beautiful (even my two-year-old son said “oooooh the sun”), it’s hard to discern meaningful patterns with a lot of blue lines crossing everywhere so I created a link number slider to be able to filter them. At higher numbers like 15+ links (where only country links which have occurred 15 times or more will appear), some interesting differences and similarities across the media sources appear. For all three sources the highest number of links are between the US, the UK and Canada with some countries in Western Europe (France, Italy) also in the mix. All three sources show the highest number of links between the US/Canada and Western Europe and lack equivalent linkages for countries in South America, Asia, and Africa. At the 15-link threshold, the BBC doesn’t show a single link to or from any country on those continents. HuffPo and the NYT show links from the US to Argentina and Brazil and both show several links from the US to countries on the Asian continent. But of the three sources at this threshold only the NYT shows a link between the US and an African country: Egypt.

So what is this telling us? One thing is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that national news sources tend to focus on themselves. Most of the large numbers of links are between the news source’s own country and other nations. There are also high linkages between the home country and where that country is at war (e.g. Iraq & Afghanistan for the NYT and the HuffPo) or where they are thinking of using military force (e.g. Syria or Iran which show up for HuffPo at the 15-link threshold). And economic power. In a 2003 paper called Global Attention Profiles, Ethan Zuckerman outlined a model of attention whereby media attention from international news organizations correlates with a country’s GDP. It would seem at least from first glimpse that the linkage model of attention follows this logic as well.

This is an experiment in data journalism

I’d like to just bookend this with a disclaimer that this is not meant to be conclusive in any way. First of all the data sample (100 articles per source) is too small and over two short a period of time to actually talk about long-term patterns of comparative geographic media coverage. Secondly, we still need to evaluate the performance of the geoparser for extracting places from news articles. There is certainly at least 10-20% error in how it is identifying places in the articles (which may account for why Italy shows up as having so many links? What is going on with that?). And finally, this was a way to experiment with turning articles into networks of geographic places. I’m still not entirely sure this is a useful methodology but I wanted to see what came out of the experiment to help assess whether it’s useful or not (and would love to hear thoughts and feedback to that effect).

My question for the class is – does it count as data journalism if you experiment with visualizing your data in various ways with various methodologies in order to dig up a story? My guess is that data journalism could happen and unfold in a variety of ways. It seems legit when working with large datasets to experiment with ways to explore that data in a preliminary way that may or may not lead to a narrative, but I’d love to talk more about that unfolding process.



See Something Say Something

See Something Say Something, early poster from NYC (now nationwide) campaign

This is something of an easy target but I want to analyze the truth claims and propaganda content of one of the original See Something Say Something posters deployed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City. See Something Say Something is a terrorism awareness campaign designed by ad exec Allan Kay that originated in New York and was later adopted by the Department of Homeland Security and deployed in more than thirty transit systems across the nation.

The poster in question is bright yellow and features a grid of 12 pairs of human eyes staring at the viewer at the top. The eyes belong to humans of varying races and ethnicities. The expressions in the eyes are unafraid and vigilant, verging on confrontational. But we can only see their eyes, not the rest of their faces or bodies. The text below the eyes reads:




Through a combination of words and text and the context in which they appear (public transit posters across the city), the poster is making the following truth claims:

  1. Public space is dangerous, particularly in relation to terrorist attacks.
  2. Terrorists could be anywhere and could likely be the regular people you encounter in your everyday commute.
  3. Authorities might not be able to protect you from them.

And from those truth claims the poster makes a normative assertion, a call to action in the form of an imperative “See Something Say Something” which, combined with lots of vigilante eyes staring the viewer down, mean:

  • Part of your civic obligation in public space is spying on fellow citizens

The whole multi-city See Something Say Something campaign makes ingenious use of many of the rhetorical principles outlined by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis prior to WWII and detailed by Wendell Potter in his book Deadly Spin. And this poster specifically makes use of several. The intentional diversity of the age, race and gender of the eyes makes a visual reference to “Plain Folks”. The text on the poster, “WE NEED ALL OF THEM” makes it clear here we are talking about you, me and everybody else. Just all of us regular people helping out our government. Get on the “Bandwagon”, another one of the rhetorical tactics.

Additionally, the poster employs visual and textual euphemisms. What is the threat? It is unnamed. It is amorphous. It is “something” therefore it is anything. But we must be vigilant and report it. We are responsible.

But this poster’s primary tactic is #1 on the list: Fear. September 11th is an event that looms large in recent history. By linking our most mundane everyday spaces to that traumatic event, repeatedly, everywhere the poster and messaging appear, the poster leverages that collective trauma. It repeats that trauma. The trauma feels plausible because it was(is) so recently raw. The warning is clear: citizens must take responsibility for preventing terrorism by being suspicious. Even the authorities might not be able to protect you – you must use your own eyes – your most disembodied, peephole eyes – as weapons in public space.

A Vine Interview with Joanna S. Kao

Joanna is a senior at MIT, a contributing editor at the MIT Tech, and a talented programmer and designer. She’s building the Vine Toolkit for Journalists which will help reporters use Vine to conduct interviews, create reports and give 6-second context to stories. I attempted to interview her using Vine and it was pretty weird. Watch the results of our experiment:


Catherine’s 4 Hour Failure

For this assignment, I wanted to cover a hackathon at the White House that I participated in last Friday. It was an all-day event but Ethan and Matt said it would be ok to bend the rules a little bit since I wasn’t actually writing during the event.

But I had several problems actually completing the assignment in four hours:

  1. I got extremely emotionally invested in the post. I wanted it to do a lot of things – report on the day, congratulate the White House for having a Hackathon, explore further ways they could expand the platform, showcase all the different projects from the participants, and make a case for why death stars are important to petitions.
  2. Although I like writing, it is something that requires deep focus and is more difficult for me than creating things with images, media and code.
  3. I like to get feedback and ideas from advisors and friends before making anything public.
  4. The way my life is structured I rarely have four hours of uninterrupted time.
  5. I always want to add images and media to my blog posts which subsequently take me forever to format.

So, here is my resulting post on the Civic Media blog. I’m happy with it but I estimate it took about 10-12 hours of my time if you include thinking, writing, talking and formatting (not including the event itself which was nine hours). And that time was definitely not consecutive – mostly I did it in blocks of 30 minutes to one hour.

My takeaway: I’m not cut out for journalism if the deadlines are like this :).

Journalism and the Difference Quotient

Response to “What is Journalism For?”

Last week we read excerpts from the book “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel in which they posed the important and timely question: “What is Journalism For?”

For Kovach and Rosenstiel, journalism is a timeless function of our human instinct to know about the world around us – what they call “The Awareness Instinct”. According to uncited anthropologists, pretty much all people around the world share the same definition of news and news values. They trace the history of journalism from publick houses in England to its present day and assert that its purpose has remained essentially unchanged across that time until this particular moment of crisis. What is that purpose? What is journalism for? They answer:

The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. – p 12

The journalism described in the essay is high-minded and has everything to do with good moral things like justice and democracy and nothing to do with bad evil things like propaganda, nation-building, scapegoating, war-mongering and hate-building (all things I would claim that the media in a democratic society also do). This journalism is an abstracted ideal that the authors attempt to naturalize with links to supposedly inherent human instincts and to strip of its specific cultural and historical manifestations by claiming that it has been ever the same across all time and space until this particular moment of corporatism. I became less irritated by this essay once I stopped thinking of it as a bad historical or descriptive account and started thinking about it as a defensive manifesto for a field in crisis trying to justify its existence.

As a manifesto, it raises valuable questions – What are our ideals for journalism in the 21st century? How linked is journalism to the institutions – newspapers, tv news, their corporations – that produce it – and is journalism’s power directly related to being part of large, powerful organizations that many people see and many people trust? In an increasingly globalized world where the media entities are part of corporate conglomerates can journalism maintain any of its supposed “free press-ness”, it’s ability to report independently on powerful interests? And as the corporations get bigger, the audiences get sliced and diced in ever-smaller niche chunks. As audiences move to a “pull” mode of delivery where we increasingly select which news we wish to be exposed to, how can journalism be an engine of difference versus an echo-chamber for our existing selves?

Ok, so now I’ve diverged into my own questions. But it’s sort of like driving a car versus taking the bus. They accomplish the same purpose but with radically different “difference quotients” – i.e. how much of the world are you exposed to that you don’t already know (and that you might not choose to be exposed to even if you did know?) In a car you are your own little individual car-person. You choose, you turn, you arrive. You are the great consuming last man – comfortable in the power of your consumer choice to determine your destiny. Whereas on the bus, you go the bus’ way. There are probably people who are not your color. There are probably obnoxious people or homeless people or kids doing weird things. You hear little conversations, sit uncomfortably close to strangers, and probably learn more about these people than you ever care to.

But at the same time there’s something to be said for that bus experience, right? There’s something to be said for just smelling other people occasionally.

So, I’m not sure I buy the heroic story of journalism as the timeless bulwark of a democratic society, but I do think that one of the things that should be troubling to us in the whole journalistic crisis is that the difference quotient of our individual lives is being diminished with every shrinking public good, whether that is public transit or public information. And when we see, smell, hear and feel less difference we are less tolerant. And therefore less democratic. When we need to look for everything we want to know we will be entertained and engaged like never before but completely unaware of the many complex worlds that used to sit next to us on the bus.