Wednesdays, 10am – 12:45pm, 8-205
Instructor: Ethan Zuckerman (with Special Guest Stars). TA: Leo Mebazaa.
These are interesting times for journalism.
A revolution more than a decade ago changed the rules around who could make the news, bringing bloggers, activists, bots, sensors, propagandists and fabulists into the fray. The news that’s resulted is often more diverse, inclusive and insightful than it was decades ago. But the news has also become a battlefield, where everyone from politicians to 4chan trolls fights for their agenda, for the attention of audiences and for influence over global politics and decisionmaking. Once the first draft of history, news can feel like a battle over the nature of reality.
In the process, existing business models for producing high-quality news are failing… but new forms of reporting are breaking important stories and reaching new audiences. Front-page editors used to curate a shared media experience; now we read the news our friends read, personalize our feeds into extreme niches, and try to crowdsource the identities of criminal suspects. A revolution in tools and techniques is changing how amateurs, professionals, crowds and algorithms) report and share news. And yet, the public need for high-quality information about current events remains unchanged.
If that wasn’t enough, the President of the United States has declared the media to be “the opposition party”. And while the very nature of truth, fairness in reporting and reality itself currently seem up for grabs, the pervasive mistrust that news organizations suffer from is a major problem for democracy, and for their survival.
This class examines the news media and the world of social and participatory media as an ecosystem, influencing and shaping each other. The goal of this class is to consider the future of news – and of social networks – as an engineering challenge. We’ll consider questions like:
+ What tools will we use to report news in the future? What channels will distribute it?
+ How big a problem is mis- and disinformation and can we root it out algorithmically?
+ How can we engineer tools for journalists to make sense of user-generated information, particularly in moments of crisis with rapidly unfolding events?
+ Can we protect the anonymity of sources and security of data in investigative reporting?
+ What novel forms of cross-platform storytelling can be developed to give context to an ongoing story or engage the public in issues that matter?
+ Can you write an algorithm to detect a rumor? A website that profits from rumor-mongering?
+ What responsibilities do social networks have in helping us understand the world we live in and the people we interact with?
+ When is it appropriate for people reporting news to advocate for political positions? For their perspective and view of events?
+ Do social networks make us bad citizens? Could they make us better citizens
+ Could someone please solve the problem of comments?
We’ll explore the systems journalists have used to report and share the news, but we’ll focus on developing our own tools and methods to address these challenges. Students will work independently or collaboratively to produce final projects. We are likely to have a mix of technologists and professional journalists in the class, and collaboration between people with different skillsets is highly encouraged.
The first section of the class features weekly assignments. Completing each assignment requires authoring a news story. That story can be textual, graphical, audio, video, interactive, or any combination of these methods. At least one story must be long-form text (1000 or more words); at least one story must use a medium other than text. Creating new tools or methods to solve these weekly reporting challenges is encouraged, but not mandatory.
For the final assignment, students will be working individually or in teams to create new tools or methods to report, share or discuss news. In addition to designing the tool or technique, you will be reporting a story using this tool/technique, and at least one classmate should report using your tool as well (reciprocity is expected and encouraged).
Classes are structured as follows:
– 60 minutes of critique of last week’s assignment
– 10 minute break
– 80 minutes discussion of reading and issues raised
– 10 minute discussion of upcoming assignment
Grades are calculated as follows:
– 25% class participation
– 50% performance on weekly assignments
– 25% final project
Weekly assignments are designed to be completed within the week or fortnight they were assigned, and posted online by midnight prior to the day of class. Extensions will be granted only in the case of illness, unavoidable travel and alien abduction (pics or it didn’t happen). Text-based assignments should be between 800–1500 words. At least one assignment must be completed in a primarily non-text format. This could include an audio or audiovisual story (aim for 5 minute pieces), a photo essay, a simulation or game. At least one assignment must be completed using text or hypertext as the primary medium. Final projects must be presented to the whole class, explaining the novelty and utility of the tools or techniques, along with the stories reported using the tools. You are strongly encouraged, though not required, to share your reporting on a personal blog, class blog or through any number of syndication and sharing methods. Similarly, commenting on other students’ blog posts is strongly encouraged and will be considered as part of class participation.
February 6: Introduction
In this class we’ll meet one another, and have a brief lecture – followed by a conversation – about the shifts undergoing the world of news, and the broader ecosystem that surrounds it. We’ll review the syllabus and the expectations for the class and field questions for those considering whether or not to attend.
Assignment, due Feb 13 – The New Toolkit. Review the links below, which feature collections of tools journalists are being encouraged to learn, adopt and use. Pick one of these tools, or another tool you believe it useful for newsmakers, and write a short post about it and its implications for the future of news and media. Come prepared to demonstrate the tool in the next class.
20 tools and resources every journalist should experiment with
5 Must-have Accessories for Mobile Journalists
A toolkit for protesters
10 Trusty Digital Tools
95 Tools for Investigative Journalists
A Data Journalism Expert’s Personal Toolkit
Reading for Feb 13
- “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy” – Michael Schudson
- “Four Problems for News and Democracy” – Ethan Zuckerman
- “News is Bad for You” – Rolf Dobelli
- Knight research report “American Views” – read executive summary, encouraged to read full report
February 13: Why do we need the news?
After a review of toolkit assignments, we’ll look at the question of what news is good for, and why news organizations are suffering a crisis in trust. What can news do for us in a democracy, and what’s it currently failing to do? We’ll identify a set of problems with news, trust, information distribution and other problems we might set out to address with final projects.
Assignment, due Feb 20 – Media Diary
Maintain a media diary, tracking all media you encounter in the course of a week, where it originated, whether it was news or entertainment media. Present your diary, preferably in a way that offers summary and analysis of patterns you’ve discovered from keeping it.
Reading for Feb 20
- Starr – The Creation of the Media
- Kovachs and Rosensteil – Elements of Journalism
- Jaqueline Bacon – The History of Freedom’s Journal
February 20: How did we get here? – The Creation of the Media
How did we end up with the news media we currently rely on? Have we grown the media we need, or do we need a different media for this moment in time? What’s the appropriate relationship between the press and powerful institutions it covers? We’ll work together to identify strengths and weaknesses in existing and evolving forms of news production.
Assignment due Feb 27: Four Hour Challenge
Pick a story, preferably a local event, and produce a story, start to finish, within four contiguous hours. That includes the event: a lecture starting at 7pm equals a story filed by 11pm at the latest. Major props for doing this assignment in a non-text based medium.
Prior year examples: Sports match recap, Breaking news timeline, Event experience video
Reading due Feb 27:
- Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, chapter 6
- Optional: Shirky’s 2009 Shorenstein Center lecture
- Stories on Bell, CA including:
- “Who is a journalist? Manning trial poses question of vital public interest”, Jeff Jarvis
- James Rainey – How Spotlight Became a Love Letter to Journalism
- Chris Hamby – The Court that Rules the World
February 27: Accountability journalism
At its best, journalism exposes stories the powerful would prefer remained secret, and can bring justice to those who’ve been long ignored. But are traditional media outlets losing the power to name and shame on the front page? And can new forms of media hold power accountable in the same ways?
Assignment, due March 6: TBD
Reading for March 6:
- “Andy Carvin: The Future of Journalism?”, Noah Echols interviews Andy Carvin
- “The Problem With Tweeting a Revolution”, Jacob Silverman reviews Andy Carvin’s book
March 6: Reporting via Citizen Media
Important news takes place in locales where there are few professional journalists on the ground. Increasingly, we get breaking news reports from people directly affected by events. How do we verify accounts that come from citizen sources? How to we find solutions to questions of credibility, priority and context when reporting on events we can’t witness in person? What are the strengths and limits to this model of reporting?
Assignment, due March 13: Reporting as Curation
Tell a story you can’t report on in person by curating online sources: twitter feeds, blog posts, Flickr photos, YouTube videos. The bulk of the story should be “actualities”—the words of people affected by the situation, not your analysis.
Prior year examples: In Egypt, How Free is Free?, Red Sox Opening Day with Vine, Mass Transport Bill Passes House; Progressives and Michigan Fans Upset
Required reading for March 13:
- “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science”, Chris Moone
- “Lies, Damned Lies and Fact-checking”, Mark Hemingwa
- How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News, motherjones.com/…/denial-science-chris-mooneyCraig Silverman
- Did Media Literacy Backfire?, danah boyd
- Fake News is a Red Herring, Ethan Zuckerman
- Why Fake News Stories Thrive Online, Judith Donath
- How the 2016 Election Blew Up in Facebook’s Face
- LazyTruth by Matt Stempeck
March 13: Facts and Fact-checking, Truth and Truthiness
One of the major functions of news media is verification—examining claims made by corporations, organizations and government officials to check their veracity. This function is complicated by the emergence of PR practices designed to disguise corporate speech, and a tendency of political rhetoric to stray beyond truth… and further complicated by human tendencies to remember untrue information when it confirms our biases. How should we verify information in this sort of environment?
Assignment, due March 20: Fact-checking
Tell a story that makes truth claims about a disputed subject.
Using techniques from the Debunking Handbook,
and using what you know about motivated reasoning,
leading with values, persuade a broad audience
– including those hostile to your claims – of the truth of your assertions.
Reading for March 20:
- Data Journalism: Making it Real, Andy Dickinson
- How to analyze unfamiliar data, Ted Cuzzillo
- 4 examples of innovative online newsgathering, Sarah Marshall
Optional Reading for March 20:
- How NetFlix Reverse Engineered Hollywood, Alexis Madrigal
- Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data, Edward Segel and Jeffrey Herr (will be sent via email)
- The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen, TED talk by Hans Rosling
March 20: News and Data Visualization
Special guest star Rahul Bhargava will talk about one of the promises of the era of big data—the possibility of breaking important stories through the careful analysis of data. While there’s good evidence that untold stories lurk within data sets, telling a story with data is far more complicated than just analyzing and visualizing—it requires context and human stories as well.
Assignment, due April 3: Data Story
Use publicly available data to report a story. This could include analysis of a city budget, lobbying information, or building permit data. Collecting your own data set via crowd sourcing is perfectly valid, but we’ll be brainstorming promising data sets in class before taking on the assignment. Prior year examples: Trayvon Martin Media Coverage, Mapping the News, Romanian Memes, Boston Restaurant Suspensions, Congressional Partisanship
Required reading for April 3:
Optional reading for April 3:
- If You’ve Ignored Bitcoin Up Until Now, This One’s For You, Emily Siner (NPR)
- By reading this article, you’re mining bitcoins, Ritchie S. King
- The Curious Case of the Silent Filibuster, Patrick Sharma and Josh Kalven (Newsbound)
- “Gun Violence in America”, Jonathan Stray
- Lewis DVorkin on Forbes and the long form
- Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt
March 30: No Class, MIT spring break
April 5: No Class, MIT Media Lab member meeting
April 3: The Explainer
Some of the most important and influential news reporting isn’t a short update on a breaking event; it’s long-form reporting designed to explain and contextualize a story, allowing readers to understand the importance of an issue they might have otherwise neglected or ignored. What aspects of verification, contextualization and prioritization come into creating long-form news narratives, and how might new tools help us with this process?
Assignment, due April 10: Explainer
Pick a brief article from a newspaper, blog or other source that serves as an update in the arc of a longer story (Airstrikes continue in Pakistan; Fed raises interest rates). Write a companion story, create an infographic, or choose another form that provides essential background information that makes the previous story understandable to a very broad audience (i.e., non-expert, international). Remember, hypertext is your friend.
Prior year examples: Burma or Myanmar?, North Korea Missile Test FAQ
Reading for April 10:
To be announced
Required reading for April 17:
- Keep it in the ground
- Saving the News with Advocacy Journalism: ten minutes with the Nieman Foundation, Ethan Zuckerman
- What is Solutions Journalism?, David Bornstein
- History of Advocacy Journalism (prezi), Laurel Sallie
- The Media is Changing for Good” by Cathrine Gyldensted
- Teen Vogue’s Political Coverage Isn’t Surprising, Sophie Gilbert
Explore for April 17:
April 17: Media and Civic Participation
Fox News’s (disingenuous) slogan, “We report, you decide” invokes a basic tenet of American journalism – the media’s role is to report news, not tell readers or viewers how they should interpret or react to them. One shift in our media landscape is an attempt to link news and action, connecting readers to organizations they might support or actions they might take in reaction to a story. This is a controversial development, leading some to criticize “advocacy journalism” and others to hope that linking news to action may preserve or expand the audience for investigative news.
Assignment, due May 1: TBD
Also due May 1: Final project presentation. Well before now, you should be getting together with possible teammates and coming up with a final project. On the 1st, you’ll be expected to present these ideas, along with 3 slides explaining them, for feedback and critique.
Reading for May 1:
May 1 – The Media We Want and Final Project Pitch
Each team will present their proposal final project in 3 slides.
No more assignments – all work now focuses on the final project
Required reading for May 8:
- 76 Ways to Make Money in Digital Media, David Plotz
- Mathew Ingram on Gawker
- The Atlantic on Scientology
- “Transfer of Value”, Frédéric Filloux (Monday Note)
- “The newsonomics of how the news industry will be tested in 2014″, Ken Doctor
- Civil looks to create the next generation of journalism with blockchain tech, Yael Grauer
- Alas, the Blockchain Won’t Save Journalism After All, Jonah Engel Bromwich
- OPTIONAL: “Is Scientific Publication About to Be Disrupted”, Michael Nielsen
- OPTIONAL: “Piracy is Progressive Taxation”, Tim O’Reilly
- OPTIONAL: Gaining ground, or just treading water? Nikki Usher and Matthew Hindman
- OPTIONAL: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-original-sin/376041/
May 8: Who Pays?
Business models to support long-form, investigative and international reporting are in flux. Newspapers no longer have monopoly over local advertising and many are shrinking their staff and their ambitions. While amateur forms of media production are producing strong results, there’s reasons to worry about the survival of expensive-to-produce types of news. Who pays for the news we need to function as informed and engaged citizens?
Assignment, due May 15: Final Project
Continue work on the final project.
May 15: Presenting the Final Projects
With snacks, mandatory revelry and merriment