MAS 700 – News and Participatory Media

2019 Spring

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
Journalist’s Toolbox
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

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

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:

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:

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:

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.

Debunking Handbook

Past examples: Alistair on Climate ChangeMC annotates the Westboro Baptist Church

Reading for March 20:

Optional Reading for March 20:

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:

March 27: No Class, MIT spring break

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

April 10: Attention and How To Measure It
This is a class on using Media Cloud and other tools to track stories, influence and how they spread. Taught by Léopold Mebazaa and Emily Ndulue.

Required reading for April 17:

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:

April 24: No Class, MIT Media Lab member meeting

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:

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.

No reading

May 15: Presenting the Final Projects
With snacks, mandatory revelry and merriment

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