Profile (belated) and data story: Sands Fish

I interviewed Sands Fish for our class profiles assignment months ago and decided to try to profile him through the medium in which he is an expert: data visualization. However, I ran into a road block that I wasn’t able to resolve until our data visualization class. So I’m combining two assignments in one and finally presenting my results.

After Sands and I talked, I transcribed 25 minutes of our interview, including even the “um”s and “yeah”s. Then I analyzed the text from several different perspectives, trying to echo Sands’ work with MediaCloud, which crunches massive amounts of data to discover the relationships between words and the people who use them. In our case, I wanted to get a visual representation of the themes and rhythm of our interview.

First, I analyzed the language we each used. Here are the words I used most often:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.52.27 PM

And the ones Sands used most often:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.53.21 PM

There wasn’t a lot of overlap.

Then I counted the number of words in each uninterrupted chunk of speech and made a spreadsheet recording each of those chunks under our respective names, with the minute timestamp interspersed. For example, here is the first five minutes:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 11.12.56 PM

Here is a streamgraph that shows our individual share of the conversation, and the overall give and take. I used total words per person per minute to produce this graph on raw.densitydesign.org:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.56.54 PM

Then I took a more granular look at the first 10 minutes of conversation, using cumulative word count instead of minutes as the x-axis value. That gave me a better sense of the frequency of volleys between us, and the duration of each uninterrupted chunk of speech:

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 11.15.35 PM

Here are a few takeaways I gleaned about my interview style by representing the interview visually:

  • I affirm understanding in lazy ways (yeah, OK, mhmm), and I interrupt a lot.
  • It would be better would be to remain silent until the end of my interviewee’s explanation, and then affirm my understanding in a summary that uses key words and phrases that he or she has shared.
  • Overall the share of conversation is roughly appropriate for interviewer and interviewee, though the spike at 22 represents a story I shared that probably didn’t add much to the interview.

Can Visual Diplomacy Save the World?

American clarinetist, Benny Goodman, performs in Red Square, Moscow, 1962. I(Image courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Benny Goodman Papers, Yale University)

American clarinetist, Benny Goodman, performs in Red Square, Moscow, 1962.
(Image courtesy of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Benny Goodman Papers, Yale University)

For many decades now countries like the United States, France and the United Kingdom have used public diplomacy to spread their soft power.

One of the elements of public diplomacy is known as cultural diplomacy and includes exchange programs, musical tours and international photographic exhibitions.

The fundamental idea is simple; through cultural exchange, nations can achieve a level of understanding between their peoples that politics cannot.

Ashley Doliber, a Masters Degree candidate at Tuft University’s Fletcher School is keenly interested in an idea that pivots off this notion of cultural diplomacy; How can images be used effectively as tools for international diplomacy? Can we foster better understanding between nations and a more peaceful co-existence by leveraging the power of visual communication?

"We know that even one picture can change the course of someone’s thinking about a topic."

Doliber thinks there are many merits to this notion. She asserts, “We know that even one picture can change the course of someone’s thinking about a topic. Just taking a recent example that’s been talked about a lot; the image of the Syrian toddler who died and washed ashore in Turkey; certainly people were talking about the [refugee] crisis before and after that, but you saw that one image spread like wildfire on social platforms and it really galvanized a lot of people who maybe saw their own kid, or their niece or their sister in that one image, and it sparked a political debate, it sparked empathy…”

I asked her a few questions about this idea and its possible implementation;

How did the idea of merging photography and international relations come about?

I did both of those areas of study in my undergraduate degree as two separate degrees. I did one in International Affairs and one in photography, a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I think at the time it started as two things that I was really passionate about but over time it’s really become clear to me that those two things inform one another pretty dramatically sometimes.

I think as you’ve seen working in the media space, an image, a video or even an info-graphic translates immediately; it goes across borders, across languages, across depth of understanding, those types of media have an extra-ordinary amount of power and I think especially in a global context it’s important to have something that brings someone into the story, that gives them an immediate spark of understanding about what’s going on in the world…”

Ashley Doliber

“Images can be used more effectively as tools for international diplomacy,” Ashley Doliber

Does that  exist as an actual area of study?

I don’t think there are too many people studying exactly that, buy I do think that there are quite a number that are working with those ideas. Certainly photojournalists are doing that all the time, and people that are working in strategic communication or working in the media industry more generally are thinking about how to use whatever visual content they have.

Organizations are one thing. How do we take this concept and apply it to nations and international diplomacy?

Before I came to school I was with an organization in DC called Meridian International Center. They do a lot of public diplomacy work, supporting some US Government Projects and some of their own. We had a department that focused on cultural diplomacy.
Some of the coolest projects they did were these photo exhibits that traveled either throughout the US and/or around the world.

They had one during the Cold War that was very successful where the US government brought together a lot really famous Jazz musicians to travel mostly in Soviet areas to share American jazz music and interact with the community and find those common areas of interest. The idea was, “Sure we don’t agree on politics, but we all love good music and we share the same emotions and we share the same values in some areas.” So there were these great images of these guys going out and playing the saxophone in the middle of a crowd of children in a square in Moscow or driving into a soccer pitch to play. Those images were curated and sent around the US and to a tonne of countries around the world.

an image, a video or even an info-graphic translates immediately; it goes across borders, across languages, across depth of understanding...

They did another project a coupe of years ago where they had images from different sources cataloging the history of US-Afghan relations before everything that’s going on now. It was kind of a lost part of history that a lot people don’t now much about and hearkens back to times when there was a little bit more hope, a little bit more understanding. That toured across Afghanistan, and in particular they brought in a lot of students to see it.

If we can take this notion to a far extreme and say at the UN General Assembly. Everybody is quiet and all we are doing is showing images. Would that be how to do it or do you see it happening in another way?

I would love to just see that happening, to see what would take place. Of course, you still need people to talk to one another. Generally speaking, an image isn’t going to be the end all be all of a transformative thought… however I do think it would be kind of an interesting experiment to see if delegates to these types of discussions could bring one or two images that exemplified how they were reflecting on a given issue.

Should poorer countries even consider spending money on this when they are grappling with issues like food security, health and education?

I would certainly never tell somebody that they should prioritize getting a picture out there over someone’s life or death. At the same time, I think a little bit of time and effort, maybe from an NGO partner or Civil Society, leveraging something to help tell your story better and help people understand you could help solve some of the more critical, pressing problems, because sometimes, unfortunately, it’s all about how you sell your needs. Engaging in some of these discussions; visual or verbal, I think could only help.”

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.

So You Want to Read: Zimbabwean Fiction

This was a really challenging assignment, because it forced me to think hard about what qualified someone as an expert. I didn’t want to take the easy route and interview Fungai about his work. Although it’s a great and interesting topic, it’s also something that he talks about all the time. I did a little Facebook stalking and noticed that he posted a lot about literature. I thought it would be great to put together a contextual primer on literature by Zimbabwean authors. I was interested in the subject, and I knew very little about it. I liked the idea of a “contextual reading list.” One of the things I find frustrating about reviews on sites like Amazon’s is that book reviews are provided independent of wider context. For ex: who is the person doing the review? What expectations, history or loyalties do they bring to the review process? I thought Fungai could serve as a great expert. In addition to being a media maker, he has deep emotional and personal connections to the material that make for interesting reading on their own.

My second goal for this assignment was to try and find a good use for FOLD. I think material like reviews makes for great FOLD stories because the contextual embedding format makes great sense. So I thought I’d use FOLD to juxtapose narratives. On the one side, in the main story blocks, I’d have Fungai talking about his experiences with some of these key novels and texts by Zimbabwean writers. In the right-side blocks, I posted links, reviews and other material related to those texts so that readers could go off and explore more on their own (which was the whole goal). The goal of a review is to communicate the essence of a book. But by using FOLD’s capabilities in this way, I was able to focus on the interview sections on Fungai’s experience, and to package the summaries/etc in the links I presented on the side. It was a great and interesting experience, and I’d be very interested if anyone has feedback on what it was like to read in this format.

Story here.

Meet Fungai Tichawangana

Fungai TichawanganaMy story began in the late 1970s in Harare, Zimbabwe and it’s been endless chapters ever since. One of those chapters had a part that said in 2015 Fungai was awarded a Nieman Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University and a Nieman Berkman Fellowship for Journalism Innovation at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and thanks to that sentence I am here today.

But before that chapter, before that sentence, I was a young entrepreneur in Zimbabwe, wanting to use the web to do big things; build ‘online skyscrapers’, tell stories and explore new possibilities. With some friends, I started a web development business in the year 2000 and the plot got so thick that it led me to online journalism and down a very winding path to a place where the online publication I launched in 2008 started winning national awards.

In the foreword somewhere it talks about how I love stories and history and photography and Zimbabwe and tech and sadza served with covo in peanut butter sauce and road runner chicken (aka free range what what).

Ndini wenyu,
Fungai

Wenxin Fan Intro

I root for Spotlight to win the Oscar. Hi! My name is Wenxin. Am a Nieman fellow from China. I report from Shanghai for Bloomberg News/Businessweek, and previously for the New York Times.

A lot of my work involves finding data and then matching them. I spent a large amount of time searching the Web using names, phone numbers, emails, IDs, birthdays etc. as keywords. Then I try to connect those dots by matching a set of those data. An example would be identifying a man with an English name invested in an Australian mine to be the grandson of Deng Xiaoping. The databases I use include social networks such as Facebook or Weibo, company registrations, stock exchange filings, lexis/nexis, and Communist Party propaganda. Most of the times, I start with Google, which had also helped me to help my wife find her primary school classmates.

Am interested in learning the more innovative means of reporting, and am keen to find new ways for story-telling. Eager for my hidden geek-side to be kindled by working with y’all.

Wendi C. Thomas

Wendi Flyer HeadshotHi y’all! I’m a journalist based in Memphis. I’ve worked as a reporter, columnist or editor at The Indianapolis Star, The (Nashville) Tennessean, The Charlotte Observer, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Flyer. I’m a 2016 Nieman fellow and when I’m done, I’m going back to Memphis to use journalism to spark a citywide conversation about Memphis’ failure to live up to Martin Luther King’s dream of economic justice. (The 50th anniversary of his assassination is April 4, 2018.)

I think a lot about what tools can be used to keep elected officials accountable and how citizens can give elected officials feedback immediately with the goal of shaping public policy to benefit the poor. I know good journalism has the power to change communities but I don’t know exactly how to deploy it in a startup to change my community. (And I don’t know how to fund it either.) Hoping to solve all these challenges this semester, with time left over for whirled peas. 🙂

When I’m not reading studies about racial disparities, I’m playing Ruzzle on my phone, watching the new Beyonce video, tweeting at @wendi_c_thomas or Facebooking.

Naomi Darom

Naomi_Darom_headshot

I’m a 2015-6 Nieman fellow.
Before coming here I worked as a magazine reporter at Haaretz newspaper in Israel.
I reported mostly long-form pieces but also news and Op Eds.
Before that I was an art director in advertising agencies in New York and Tel Aviv.
I’m deeply interested in gender and childhood.
I would like us journalists to stop chasing the latest social media platforms, and take control of our storytelling.
I’m particularly interested in two questions:
1. How can technology be used to assist reporting and writing, make them more accessible and interactive, without sacrificing depth and craft?
2. How can technology make journalists more independent of organizations and free in creating the right platform for their content?
I’m excited about this class and the chance for collaboration!

Jia Zhang

Hi!
I’m a phd student working with interactive maps and data visualizations here in the Media Lab. My background is in visual art and interaction design.

I am interested in how journalists use maps and visualizations. I am a big fan of Amanda Cox and cannot express how excited I am about her new role as editor of the Upshot. I want to build visualization tools for professional and amateur storytellers alike.

1472086_10153515742355335_518222451_nI would like to focus on becoming a better writer through this class. I am especially excited to learn from so many great journalists and writers in the class. I would also like to work on a few map/dataviz-based projects that will contribute to my dissertation research if the opportunity comes up.

 

Relevant skills: visual design, python, front end web dev, javascript, processing, and mandarin.

Sravanti Tekumalla

Hi, I’m Sravanti!

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I’m a current senior at Wellesley College studying computer science and I’m interested in the intersection between technology and journalism — specifically, how to apply my computer science knowledge to create tools that can help journalists parse data in a meaningful, clear way, whether that be through data analysis tools or data visualization tools.

I’m coming to this class after finishing up a stint as Editor of my college paper, The Wellesley News. During my time at The News, I also started  an online team which created, and now maintains, our website as well as our social media presence.

Skills-wise, I have some reporting and editing experience from the journalism side. From the tech side of things, I’m good with Java, Python, JavaScript and web development-related things. I’m excited to learn a lot in this class, and to create with all of you!