Mind the Map: Toward a Handbook for Journalists

While browsing and studying maps for our final project, Catherine and I started compiling a mapping handbook for journalists. It’s far from complete, but we wanted to share an initial blog post and ask for your thoughts and feedback. Rather than focus on technical details (many of which are already covered in other blogs or places like the Data Journalism Handbook), we focused on questions a journalist might ask before making a map in the first place.

We’d love to hear your feedback, additional examples or questions.

Romania 2012: A Summer of Chaos, James Bond and Die Hard?

Scandals. Corruption. Plagiarism. Indictment. That’s the stuff of a good story. In the summer of 2012, it was also the stuff of what Princeton professor Kim Lane Scheppele calls a Romanian “political crisis”.

Elena and I tried to make sense of the hundreds of memes that appeared that summer on Reddit, Google and Elena’s Facebook feed by visualizing the memes using D3, the JavaScript library.

Below is a screenshot “teaser”. To see what we came up with, check out the full story.

Is “On Bullshit” Bullshit?

Evaluating a philosophical text for truthiness raises an interesting question: Can a philosopher debunk bullshit without employing certain “bullshitting” techniques himself? After Ethan introduced “On Bullshit”, I was optimistic. After all, he told us that “On Bullshit” was written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. And for as long as philosophy has been around, philosophers have been suspicious of rhetoric, with some, like Plato, calling it “mere flattery” and by itself, immoral. So if Frankfurt can’t do it, who can?

I think that reporters in some sense straddle the aims of both philosophers and rhetoricians -they seek truth but also want to convey truth that in a persuasive way. I wanted to see what I could learn from Frankfurt and Wendell Potter, two masters of their respective crafts, and what I could learn from applying a rhetorician’s toolkit to a philosophical text: How does my reading of Frankfurt’s text change with Potter’s techniques in mind? And what innovations might help reporters and readers sharpen their bullshit detectors?

Quest for Bullshit
I set out to read “On Bullshit” with Wendell Potter’s eight propaganda techniques in mind. Here, in short, Wendell’s eight techniques:

1. Fear
2. Glittering Generalities
3. Testimonials
4. Name-calling
5. Plain folks
6. Euphemisms
7. Bandwagon
8. Transfer

Bullshit Detection & Flagging Process
I wanted to use icons to help me flag rhetorical techniques in the text. This could help visually point out worrisome bullshit spots, and tell other readers to be suspicious of particular passages. I haven’t used icons to mark up my texts before, and I didn’t find a lot of options for doing this in Adobe Acrobat, so instead, I searched for clipart on Creative Commons ClipArt, imported and resized them in the pdf.

‘Bullshit’ Findings
I found Potter’s Technique #8:  “Transfer”, or the approval of a respected institution, right underneath Frankfurt’s name. I wasn’t sure whether to count this or not, since Frankfurt is merely citing his university affiliation. However, it seemed to me that stating “Princeton University” before the first paragraph even begins immediately signals to the reader: “This is a guy from Princeton, so he must know what he’s talking about.” And I think that this could very well influence the reader’s perception of the text. Perhaps she puts down her critical guard and is now quicker to agree with Frankfurt’s claims. Had he written “Burger King Employee”, the text might be perceived very differently. So I placed the appropriate icon.

I decided against counting Frankfurt’s first sentence “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit” as a glittering generalization (Technique # 2), because Frankfurt relativizes “salient features of our culture” with the statement “one of the most”. But as for the second sentence “Everyone knows this”- there’s no evidence for that!! That sentence definitely calls for an icon.

I couldn’t find any more of the eight rhetorical techniques until the end of the page, when suddenly – the Oxford English Dictionary. That definitely counts as a “Transfer” (Technique #8). Frankfurt could have cited Wikipedia or Wiktionary instead. But he appeals to a more “established” authority. So I placed the icon.

In sum, I found a total of five glittering generalities, three testimonials, six euphemisms and five transfers. And I have to say, for an almost 8000 word text, that seems like very little bullshit.

While looking for instances of these eight techniques, I also found that Frankfurt was making a lot of anti-bullshit moves. I decided to see how I could generalize these and then flag them in the text also.

1. Fear — Contextualization/Understanding
2. Glittering Generalities — Specification
3. Testimonials — Experience & Facts
4. Name-calling — Correct name
5. Plain folks — Author’s/Subject’s real background
6. Euphemisms — Telling it as it is
7. Bandwagon — Demographics
8. Transfer — No name flashing

Since finding icons was so time consuming, I reused my old icons and placed an ‘x’ over them to indicate “anti-bullshitting” techniques. I found the first in the title: “On Bullshit”. This is clearly an example of anti-bullshit Technique #6: “Telling it as it is”. I mean, Frankfurt doesn’t label this “A Treatise on Excrement” or “An Explication of Hot Air”. With “On Bullshit”, he isn’t beating around the bush. So I placed the appropriate icon.

Next, instead of blowing his previous generalization “there is so much bullshit” out of proportion, Frankfurt does something else: He points to the need to understand what bullshit is in the first place, stating that “to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.” So rather than relying on Bullshit Technique # 1 and describing an epic oncoming tidal wave of bullshit, Frankfurt is on the right path to helping readers understand what bullshit is in the first place. 

Although I’ll spare you the rest of the analysis, overall, I counted more anti-bullshit moves than bullshit techniques. I’m not sure whether that means that Frankfurt is a great philosopher or bad rhetorician (or both?). But what I did observe was how my own understanding of the text changed when I read with this “bullshit detection quest” in mind. Rereading the text to find places where I could place icons made me stop more often, carry out more internal dialogues about whether and where bullshit was being carried out.

From a cognitive perspective, we learned in class that readers are drawn to “feel good” rhetoric like moths to light. But by placing these icons, I stopped frequently to debunk statement. However, my process of finding, importing and placing icons was timely, clumsy and lonely. In addition, my icons and explanation for why I placed them are in two different spaces. So I began searching and brainstorming for ways to make rhetorical bullshit flagging faster, more orderly and collaborative.

Better Tools
hypothes.is is the closest tool I found for flagging and commenting on bullshit in texts. It’s an overlay on top of content such as news articles, blogs, terms of service, etc. Although the software is still being developed, I’m looking forward to exploring it more. At this stage, it’s text-only and is missing visual features like icons.  I think that visuals could be valuable not only to more quickly flag potential bullshit to other readers, but because they could have a learning function. If readers (especially young readers) can pinpoint specific rhetorical techniques and associate them with an interesting visual while reading, perhaps it would give them a more critical perspective. I imagine that there are even games that could develop out of this.

What comparable or better software for flagging and commenting on rhetorical techniques (in a way that’s embedded in the text) should I look at? I’m sure I’m missing a ton. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make text-embedded rhetorical bullshit flagging quicker, more organized and collaborative.


After I had an incredibly interesting conversation with Catherine (i.e. “kanarinka”), I played around with the platform Zeega a bit and made this to share a few of the topics we discussed:


Since it’s a fairly new platform, there may be a few glitches. But hopefully most of it works.

Journalism “Hackerspace” Model?

Speaking of new interesting models for journalism…..I saw this today:

(from the site) “ Newsdesk.org is a platform only. It has no editor, no publisher, no copy desk, and no IT, development and marketing staff; participants must address their own needs for these services, and are encouraged to do so collaboratively as well.

In the hackerspace spirit, there are no leaders. Project governance is by consensus, within a practical framework of independence, mutuality and excellence in one’s work and peer relations.

Also, in that spirit, everything on this site should be considered a work in progress, fully open to comment, critique and meaningful editing by engaged peers.

Participants have access to a fully operational, hosted, nonprofit news platform, with an associated suite of communications and publishing resources, and a record of publishing quality public-interest journalism from 2000 to 2010.

Newsdesk.org comes with beneficial professional relationships that require care and attention. The site is a member of the Investigative News Network, won an SPJ Sigma Delta Chi award, and has been previously funded by the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Harnisch Foundation.”


Reporter as a “Connector” of Curious Citizens

by ChicagoPublicMedia (CC Flickr)

Figuring out what a journalist’s role ought to be leads me to ask this: What makes her work valuable (if it’s valuable at all) to society, and is that value aligned/misaligned with larger societal goals? Rosenstiel writes that a journalist ought to “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” This seems true, given that we want to be free and self-governing (i.e. a democracy). But if providing information is the whole story, journalists can be replaced by automated data visualization tools. There’s software that can even contextualize financial and sports data. No journalist needed.

But providing information is only part of the story. I think that we also value communities. And although Rosenstiel writes that a journalist’s providing information becomes “the basis for creating community, making human connections”, he doesn’t say how that happens. I would go one step further than Rosenstiel and argue that a journalist’s role is not just to provide information, but to help form communities. What does that mean? By filtering and presenting information via narratives, good journalists can make abstract concepts and distant events relatable. If the story is compelling enough, they can extend the circle of people, events and ideas that readers care about. And that’s a pretty unique and meaningful position to be in. Unlike a novelist who connects readers to characters in history or the imagination, unlike a data scientist who connects audiences to facts, unlike a blog writer who shares opinions, the journalist contextualizes facts in new and interesting ways. She forms a connective tissue out of seemingly disparate parts.

The greatest example of informative, engaging and community-driven journalism that I’ve recently seen is WBEZ’s Curious City. The project features an online platform on which listeners can pose questions and then vote on them. The questions are then assigned to a team of reporters. The reporters first talk to the “curious citizen” to find out which facets of the question they’re more interested in. Sometimes, they take the community member on reporting trips and post reporting updates in real time. To come up with the most satisfying explanation, reporters talk to experts, post interactive maps, timelines and other types of media. For example, in a story in which a listener asked “Where does our unmistakable and loveable Chicago accent come from?”, reporters teamed up with George Mason University linguist Corrine McCarthy. McCarthy wrote a script that’s supposed to draw out stereotypically Chicago sounds from people who read it. Then, listeners (361 of them) called in and WBEZ collected voicemail recordings of the passage they read. McCarthy wrote a listening guide for reporters who then evaluated the recordings and created visuals, text and listening tracks to summarize their findings.

In another story sparked by the question “What can you get in Chicago that you can’t from any other place?”, the Curious City team turned to Facebook and Twitter for input, made a list of the community’s “report” and then taped a Chicago musician to make a song out of the most credible suggestions, which they then posted on the site.

Jennifer Brandel, a lead Curious City producer, says that the project aims to flip the power structure of radio. Rather than an assignment editor choosing a story, listeners choose which story they’re most interested in. This defies the idea of radio as a one-way medium. It turns reporting into a community project. Here, the reporter’s job is not to simply provide information, but to connect community members with experts, with each other, with ideas.

This model for a reporter as a “connector” of community members’ questions, expert knowledge, and research seems much more satisfying to me than a reporter as simply a provider of information. Listeners are given agency by being involved in the question-asking, research and reporting process.

A Media Diet of 30-Minute Portions

The first words I entered into my “media diary” this week were: “We%, %ay one”.
Why this cryptic message? Because the ‘ d ‘ on my roommate’s 10-year old laptop keyboard wasn’t working. And why was I using such a thing, you may ask? Well, my laptop broke down, which during the first few days of this assignment, led me to take on habits that aren’t representative of my usual media diet. But that turned out to be a really good thing. “Good” in the sense that I experienced and ‘consumed’ media that I’m not usually confronted with. Instead of falling deep into Internet holes, or writing blog entries for hours, my 2-hour daily time limit at the Cambridge public library (which according to library protocol, have to be broken into 30-min segments to give other patrons a chance to use the computer) forced me to rethink my typical diet. When I set out to do my media diet assignment, I intended to count all “input”, be it a lecture, conversations, videos, etc. as ‘media’. But I couldn’t watch online lectures or complete the assignments for the MOOC I’m taking. No time for long stretches of learning, news reading, or random browsing. Instead, I struck up conversations with people on an entirely different end of the MIT/Berkman “tech savviness” spectrum. Issues of access suddenly became very personal.

And you thought your computer was slow? Try waiting 10 minutes and then repeatedly seeing this fella.

First, everything took longer. Not only because the Cambridge library computers are kinda slow,  but because I had to stand in line to use them for 30 minutes at a time. Within my 2-hour time limit, I spent the first 30 minutes scouring course pages for the semester. Then, since no other patrons were waiting, I got to register for another 30 minutes at the sign-up station. At the second computer I was assigned to, I sat next to an older man who gave off a strong odor and was nervously tapping his keyboard while clicking on pictures of (barely clothed) women in his Facebook news feed. It was hard to concentrate because he was repeatedly cursing loudly to himself. And there were so many other interruptions. Another man came up to me to ask whether I could help him check his emails. A third teenager played heavy metal so loud that I was sure his headphones (or ear drums) would, at any moment, pop out. So I opted for tasks that don’t require really hard, sustained thinking.

Yup, stiiilll looadddiinnnggg

My next computer round took me to computer C1. As soon as I sat down, the librarian asked me if I want to move because next to me, one patron was receiving a tutorial from a student. I migrated again, this time to A3. But alas, I was kicked off the Internet. The system thought I had been on the computer longer than I had. Once again, I went to the sign-up desk, where the librarian she told me that because she had observed me helping an elderly lady navigate her browser and find the refresh button, she would extend my time. Those extra 15 minutes allowed me to get one email written, before the pop-up message “Please save your work now. Your session will end in 0:01:00 min” appeared.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that this is a story about frustration with my unintended media diet. Or about the inefficiencies and shortcomings of library computer stations. And it is. But that’s only a small part. Because before leaving, I decided to talk to the librarian (I’ll refer to her under the pseudonym ‘Mary’) at length about her work. And out of all the media I consumed this week (including that which I consumed with a repaired laptop), my conversations with Mary were my favorite bit of media “consumption”. She told me that she’s learned more about people, about her community, and about public spaces than she’s learned at any other job. Patrons come up to her asking her help to find housing on Craigslist (Imagine how hard it would be to get housing in Cambridge without a laptop to quickly respond to emails!), to draft resumes, to make calls. She told me how the library is a space where a lot of homeless and mentally ill people come, because it’s one of the few public indoor spaces available to them. Especially in the winter, when it’s cold outside and they might not have anywhere to go. Then she told me this story about how the other day, she observed an MIT student standing next to a 80 something year old woman trying to make copies of old photographs to send to her family. And when the student helped the woman who didn’t know how to operate the copy machine, both entered a conversation that challenged them to understand a completely different view of and comfort with technology. (At this point, our conversation was interrupted when the same woman whom I had shown where to find the ‘refresh’ button asked Mary whether she could help her make a call to her bank, which she did).

Cambridge Public Library Computer Room

Issues of access and the “digital divide” are concepts many of us are familiar with. I study these issues, but still use my speedy laptop and tech skills to do so. But this week, I was again reminded of the strange contrast of the world’s tech savviest people living next to other residents who can’t find their browser’s refresh button. And what a difference in media consumption that makes. In addition, the experience got me thinking about the severe limitations of MOOCs in so much of the world, where students watch lectures and complete assignments from internet cafes and other public spaces where noise interruptions, slow internet connections or time caps are at least as big of a problem as in the Cambridge public library. How are you supposed to excel in a MOOC when you’re constantly watching your computer time (or at Internet Cafes, might have to pay for it), or interrupted by noises, other patrons, etc. But the experience also got me to appreciate Cambridge for its amazing librarians. After I got my laptop back, I used RescueTime and paper notes to track my regular media habits much more systematically. You can take a look here, if you’re interested in some thoughts about radio consumption. But this week, the first story about my “diet” left me with a longer lasting bite to chew on (please forgive me for the pun).