Shorthand is a platform that enables simple yet stunning visual storytelling for journalists, artists, statisticians, and any storyteller looking to explore dynamic digital means of telling their tales. In a time when empathy and compassion often feel scarce, storytelling with tools like Shorthand re-engage the emotion of an often jaded audience through paced, intentional, and visually dynamic storytelling.

Over the course of my time in academia, I have become quite in touch with how little I know. Everyday, actually, the pool of knowledge, the bank of content of which I am aware I need to learn gets bigger and bigger. So, naturally, I try to absorb as much knowledge as I can just to combat the growth of that pool of uncertainty, but the rate of understanding is always slower than the rate It feels like a sprint, one where I can see the end, but the faster I go, the farther away the end gets. It is an absolute race to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible.

In that spirit of panic learning, I have become an avid speed-reader. I remember having a deep pride in my ability to speed read, to skim, to find the gold nuggets of information in a sea of text at school. The structure of the piece? I know it like the back of my hand and could find the heart of it blindfolded. Anecdotes? Fables? Stories? Merely obstacles on my mission to dig up the seed of ground-truth planted and hidden deep within the essays of the old men of antiquity.

But with so much practice in my race for information consumption, out of repetition, habit, and training, I have a really hard time not speed reading.

My group, the Lab for Social Machines, is working on a project called the Local Voices Network. It is constituted of a “unique physical-digital network designed to bring under-heard community voices, perspectives and stories to the center of a healthier public dialogue.” In short, we have a lot of audio of people telling stories from their lives. As a part of my research, I’ve been reading the transcripts of these people’s stories. Some are deeply personal, raw, and emotional. Yet, while reading, I’ve found myself flying through them, zooming through the details, feeling little empathy or any emotion at all, only looking at it through an academic lens racing to find the key nuggets of information. And what a disrespect and disservice to those storytellers.

I’ve found now, that when I listen to the audio of those stories, slow down, hear them word for word, hear the emotion in their voice, do I feel some emotional tug.

I believe that is a key problem with media consumption in American democracy today: often, we feel little empathy, no compassion, and no emotion when we read or see stories that should be truly moving.

Of course, how the story is told plays a primary role in the consumer’s interpretation and the emotion they feel. However, I believe the medium is also key.

In order to feel more empathy and compassion when taking in stories, I’ve tried to give more attention to the emotionally stirring mediums. I’ve found them to be longform, often audio or video based, more based in detail, characters and humans, images, key moments, and so on. In these formats, we humanize the people in the story, feel their pain, visualize their circumstances, feel the emotion in the voice of the speaker, and empathize.

In my experience, I have found it to be more rare for text based stories to offer that same punch, both due to my incessant speed reading and the sometimes one-dimensional nature of the text I read (often news, often academic, and often cold).

Getting to the Point…

Shorthand enables text based stories to  paces the reader and allows for easy, efficient, but stunning and deeply impactful visual storytelling. The visual storytelling of Shorthand allows artists, data visualizationists(?), storytellers, journalists, scientists, and whoever to collaborate on teams to tell a story that engages the reader. This collaboration enables illustration, photography, video, and data visualization to be enhanced by beautiful  and informative language, and enriches traditional text-based stories, pushing them into a second or third dimension of communication.

The slow and intentional spacing of a story segmented not by paragraphs but by the consumer’s scroll rate allow for the writer to place emphasis on a single moment, a single image, a single line of text in a way reminiscent of  to oral storytellers when they hit the climax, a moment of suspense, or a key moment of loss.

No longer can you zoom through a moment, zoom through a visualization, take only what you want to from the peice. Rather, the  writer has a bit more control over what moments stick out in your mind as important, influential, and meaningful.

I’ve attached examples of stories that use illustration to promote empathy and emotion in stories whos punch can be diluted by news outlets, stories that break down data visualizations into more consumable packages, moments where Shorthand has been used for advocacy, and a visual artist who has incorporated Shorthand into their art to create an array of stunning self portraits.

Finally, Shorthand is incredibly easy to use. I’ve linked one I’ve created about croissants here that took me less than 10 minutes. They offer extensive tips on general storytelling and how to use their tool on their page, The Craft, that is useful for those who use the platform as well as for those who choose not to. The platform is not free (but offers a free 30 day trial if you want to check it out).

Overall, I would highly recommend this tool and other tools and media like it to re-engage emotionally distant or jaded audiences to reinvigorate and bring passion, emotion, compassion, empathy etc. back to what can sometimes feel like a dying or apathetic democracy.  

Flyover tweets & shadow analysis

Searching twitter for only those tweets made in a particular time, in a particular location, is clearly a valuable tool. Twitter is a dazzling fountain of sources, and being able to tie those to a place and time provides context and reduces noise; it’s more likely that a journalist will be able to use the tweets they see in building a story

Geosearch has been around for a while; Echosec, present in a 2016 list of tools for journalists, is branded as a private security / “Open Source INTelligence” platform. With blog posts like “Social Media for Executive Protection” from 2015 and “How Executive Protection Services are Changing” from 2018, they’ve clearly found their niche, and since the time list of tools was written have stopped offering their tools to non-customers.

Socialbearing’s map interface, selecting a tweet considered to have a strongly negative sentiment (it doesn’t).

Socialbearing, on the other hand, focuses on marketing feedback; “insights and analytics”, “sentiment analysis”, and “View top influencers” are their key features. Google Analytics is a clear visual influence (see image). Their product, thankfully, is still available, and even makes some noise about randomizing location markers to protect privacy.

Socialbearing’s interface. It’s always good to see that tweets, by Type, are 100% Tweets.

Journalists can obviously benefit from such tools in myriad ways, most obviously when covering chaotic live events such as a protest, riot, natural disaster, police scene, etc.. Historical searches provide a way to compare locations at a particular time, or track a location over time, providing the oppourtunity for spatially-rich narratives of an event.

But what are the implications of these tools? The breadth of interest in them, combined with the impression that they’re somehow more “real” than twitter (anything on a map is easy to imagine as having already truly happened), makes them an interesting vector for malinformation. Building a fake twitter account that could plausibly be in a particular location takes a different kind of work than your standard fake account, but it probably doesn’t need as many followers/follows to be noticed, and so may be more resilient to discovery attempts. Journalists using these tools may wish to practice a kind of “shadow analysis” to verify whether the incidental information of these tweets and accounts is sufficient to verify a highly spoofable GPS entry.

What I find most intriguing, however, is the perspective these tools offer to the user. By helicoptering the journalist over mapped landscapes and letting them look down to spot individual tweets, they make the user feel powerful, godlike. The world seems understandable, and certainly the streets are understandable in a way they wouldn’t be from the ground during a protest, riot, or natural disaster. While the journalist is already in a position of being at their computer and not on the ground, I feel like geosearches heighten that feeling of distance even more than looking at a stream of text does, and that concerns me. This flyover perspective seems like something that could easily creep into the tone of how something is covered, giving it a strong spin even in the absence of malinformation.

EDIT: this only occurred to me just now in class, but while I saw several posts on “drone journalism” which meant by it using drones for photography, this kind of investigation by signature strike truly seems like journalism coming from the tradition of the drone, with many of the same strengths, the same weaknesses, the same fraught tradeoffs.

Bio: Jason Dearen

I am a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. Prior to coming to Cambridge I worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press, based in Florida and San Francisco. I am a member of AP’s Global Environment team, a group of journalists who work in different places around the country and globe who cover issues related to climate, industrial pollution, wildlife management, etc…

My focus has been on stories that look at the intersection of the environment and public health. Most recently this was a series and data project looking at the threat climate change poses to people who live around toxic waste sites and other polluted dumping grounds.

Narrative writing is my passion. I’m now working on a book for a Penguin imprint, Avery, that tells the story of a disease outbreak, and the unregulated drug manufacturing industry that caused it. I grew up in California.

When I’m not working I enjoy surfing/swimming, playing the guitar, drinking beer with friends and cooking.

Edward Burnell

Hello! I’m currently in my 5th year as a Mechanical Engineering PhD student at MIT. I used to work in industry on small electric airplanes and (flying) wind turbines, but after seeing how fragile and vital the communications of our design concepts were, went to school to research these difficult to verbalize shared ideas.

I’ve made a programming language and several tools for aerospace engineers which have been adopted by industry, but this kind of shared creative concept doesn’t only occur in engineering, so I’m looking to co-design with other groups of skilled practitioners representations and tools that build on their tacit knowledges.

I’m very excited to work with y’all in this class; there seems to be such a breadth and depth of experience with news / media / journalism, and I look forward to collaborating on projects and assignments!

Outside of research you’ll find me cooking, trying to get engineers + students to consider the social implications of their research, making mesmerizing gifs, or casually interviewing strangers about the habitus of their workplace.

Hi, I’m Devon

Hello, I’m Devon Shapiro. I’m a first-year MBA student at Sloan focusing on entrepreneurship, digital media, and politics. In this class, I’m interested in thinking about the role of journalism in society, especially with respect to how we can create business models that incentivize productive content creation and distribution. In prior lives, I was a consultant and data analyst, first at Analysis Group and later at Legendary Pictures.

My goals for this class are to:

  • Learn from all of you about the journalistic process, what should count as journalism, and maybe even get some help thinking through the role of facts in our society
  • Develop perspective on and a toolkit for navigating the digital media noise
  • Learn how to productively engage in conversations I care about on social media

Some random interests I have:

  • As an undergrad, I was fascinated by how people reconcile capitalism and biblical literalism. I did a major research project on the evolution of fiscal policy preferences among Evangelical Protestants
  • I love to cook and have recently started learning methods of traditional Italian cooking (thanks, Marcella Hazan!) I’m also interested in pickles and have been tweaking a dill pickle recipe for a couple of years
  • I try to prioritize travel – the hope for 2019 is to make it 10 countries

Gabriella Schwarz

Gabriella Schwarz is the Head of Content and Managing Editor at Flipboard, a content discovery platform with over 145 million users. In her role at Flipboard oversees the editorial and publisher strategy, as well as content product innovation. She was chosen as one of The Drum’s 50 Under 30, profiling women in digital media in 2017 and is a 2019 Nieman Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Before her time at Flipboard, she was a producer at CNN covering politics and then the White House. She won an EMMY award for her coverage of Election Night 2012, traveled around the world covering President Barack Obama and produced a 90-minute documentary about the president that included interviews with him, the first lady, secretary of state and speaker of the House, among others. Earlier in her career she worked at Fox News and Congressional Quarterly. A native of Seattle, she attended Lakeside School and then George Washington University, where she majored in political science.

#YourDataStories: Making sense from Open Data

#YourDataStories is an online platform that provides an insightful set of resources for journalists to help them hold governments accountable regarding public expenditure. Designed as a tool to provide a deep understanding of open public data for both journalists and citizens, it allows for constructive storytelling in a user-friendly manner.

The project brings together journalists and data experts to search, analyze and explore publicly available data to extract insights, facts and material to shape and back up their data stories. The YDS platform allows users to browse through and analyze datasets from various sources, which have been already aligned, interlinked and unified under a common vocabulary.

The simple visual approach of YDS makes it possible for journalists and less skilled data researchers to delve into the data from any possible aspect and perspective finding new angles for analysis and interpretation. The all-in-one workflow lets users go straight from finding the data to publishing their story.

YDS brings data from different sources together to complement and eventually enrich a story. Open governmental data sets can be used to tell interesting stories and reveal patterns related to public expenditure. It serves as a camvas that enables journalists and citizens to trace hidden stories in data. While still in a developing stage, the platform serves as a toolkit for journalists to identify, investigate and create news stories.

Find it at Humanizing the news, one perspective at a time

By Josh, Drew and Arthur

For our Future of News project, we set ourselves the goal of “Humanizing the news”. Our efforts took the form of a series of iterations between experimenting with and implementing innovations in how news stories are sourced and presented. The slides we presented in Wednesday’s class are here.

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Final project / Eva on Europeans and their stories

Dear Classmates,

To follow up on my presentation in class  last Wednesday, I am sending you the link to the website of my project on storytelling and the European identity (thank you again Katrine for your help!)

I am planning on continuing exploring the project, and would love to have your feedback and hear your thoughts and suggestions about any improvement you might think of. Please, fell free to reach out at my personal email address is:
I look forward to hearing back from you, and best of luck for the presentations tomorrow!
All the best,
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Who loses when foreign aid is slashed

Among the details of the 2018 budget proposal presented this week by the Trump administration were plans to slash nearly 30% of the combined State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budget, with most of the cuts going to foreign aid and assistance.

Climate change work, unsurprisingly, was targeted for elimination or heavy cuts, but other programs included wide-ranging issues and departments such as the Bureau for Food Security, numerous global health programs, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and general development assistance.  

There are many justifiable criticisms of international aid and the bureaucracy of institutions and most people would admit these agencies could be made more efficient. But foreign aid can also clearly save lives and improve living conditions, and many economists have pointed out what a tiny percent it constitutes of the U.S.’s overall federal budget (1.3 percent) and how, despite being the world’s biggest donor, how little we pay relative to GDP in comparison to the world’s other rich countries (.17 percent compared to .7 percent by the UK for example).  The Council on Foreign Relations has a good run down of these issues here.

There are so many other numerous pressing issues commanding our attention these days in terms of petitions to sign, marches to attend, and collective action to be planned. Restoring the Bureau for Food Security may not be the easiest cause to galvanize such acts.  So I’ll make it very simple, here are some places you can support with your wallet to attempt to cover some of the gaps should these cuts be made:


Global Health

Miraculously, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has avoided the chopping block. But numerous other programs in multiple countries will likely be effected. Besides the major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies,  Doctors Without Borders is a perennial favorite. But here are aggregations of other possible groups at the global ( here, here, here, here,) regional and local  here, here,  here, here, here and  here ) levels.

Food Security

The major intergovernmental and multilateral agencies play a big role here but other global and local groups also significantly contribute. See aggregations here, here, here and  here.

Women’s issues

The broad category of women’s issues of course can intersect with global health, development, civil liberties and numerous other issues. But here are some places to start:

Global groups  here , here and here. And an overview of a selection of regional groups herehere,  here and here .


This provides only the tip of the iceberg of groups working on these issues and, by virtue of necessity, skews heavily towards bigger organizations with a more global scope. Ideally, we would choose the issues that most matter to us and research local groups whose crucial and informed work provides the most sustained commitment.


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