Believe in the digital journalists

Don’t just trust those web people. Believe in them. Fight for them.

Kim Bui writes in an amazing manifesto on digital journalism. In too many newsrooms, the people with the digital skills are relegated to a corner, figuratively or literally. No one knows what to do with them – or what they can do.

We’re not just computer nerds, even though we use computers. We’re journalists. Ask us questions. Let us help you. You may think you know what’s going on, but have you asked? We would love to show you, teach you, figure things out with you. “There is no excuse to not to talk over to your web people and ask how you can help,” Kim writes.

If you’re a manager, you need to fight for more web resources even if you have no idea what those are. You need to look ahead of you and know that your future newsroom will need this, whether you are around or not. You need to push the envelope. You need to push your staff to get trained by those web people in the corner.

It’s not just the managers and colleagues. It seems that some young journalists, too, have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world.

The thing is, it’s difficult to forge your own path in a job that didn’t exist five years ago. People don’t know what box to put this new generation of journalists in. You have to convince them that while you’re using HTML and Twitter instead of pen and paper, what you do is still journalism.

At the same time, the whole idea of the kind of skills a journalist should have is changing. The newsrooms and managers who get it are looking for digital journalists to help shape the path ahead.

You think digital journalism is the future? It’s here already.

In this shiny new today, skills change, tools change, how we produce, distribute and consume the news changes. Curiosity is the constant. It’s challenging, but also exciting beyond belief.

Newspaper boxes in San Francisco. Photo by Gord McKenna on Flickr used under Creative Commons.

Instead of objectivity, transparency in journalism

The question of whether there can be truly objective reporting is a contested one. The notion of objectivity is ingrained in journalism training and ethos, even though it didn’t emerge until the 19th century. But the digital age sheds new light on whether objectivity is a reasonable – or even achievable – goal.

By its nature, social media is more casual, conversational, personable. This brings to the tensions inherent in the concept of objectivity to the surface: The idea that there is a set of facts about each story that can be considered the objective representation of that event.

The Associated Press recently reminded its reporters not to post personal comments on Twitter. Wolfgang Blau, editor-in-chief of German Zeit Online, tweeted “#goodluck” in response.

If we let go of the holy grail of "objectivity," will we let in some fresh air? Photo by Melina. via Flickr.

Ironically, objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, as this anecdote from journalism professor and social media whiz Sarah Fidelibus shows.

Every semester, my students undertake a project in which I require them to choose a given issue or group or major story and then research how various news media report on that issue or group or story. A popular topic for students to choose is immigration (perhaps because many of my students are immigrants themselves), and every time when I am helping them sort through the news articles they’ve chose, I’m alarmed at how often they find information with a disturbingly “immigrant as ‘other’ ” slant. I have been similarly disturbed by the raw data students have collected when researching such topics as the Oscar Grant murder trial and articles related to murders of gay teens. I have no doubt that to the authors –and their editors–these articles read as “objective,” simply reporting “the facts.” But my students, trained to critically analyze the language and the information selected in each story, overwhelmingly find a decided lack of objectivity.

What reporters and their editors perceive as “objective” reporting is seen as very much not so by students. That alone shows that “objectivity” means something else to each person looking at a story. You think of the story as objective that mirrors your own perceptions, and of it as biased if it doesn’t.

But what’s the solution? Sarah opts for diversity over objectivity and argues that bringing a range of different perspectives into newsrooms helps balance news coverage. While I agree more diversity is desperately needed, that alone won’t solve the underlying issue.

Facts fall victim to ‘objectivity’

Worshipping objectivity makes journalists shy away from calling out what’s true and what’s false for fear of being perceived as partisan.

“Journalists signal their impartiality by quoting people on opposing sides of an argument and avoid drawing conclusions, even when the facts are clear,” the Economist pointedly writes.

My own experience working on a project about climate change proves this point: To avoid being perceived as impartial, our editors tried to completely sidestep the debate about whether man-made climate change is occuring. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows it is. The only reason this would even be a question is because one political group is vehemetly opposed to the notion.

Are we doing our readers a service by not calling them out on their position, which runs counter to the vast majority of scientific knowledge? Is it fair to readers to present “both sides” and letting them judge, when one side is supported by 90 percent of scientists and the other a fringe opinion?

Jay Rosen, NYU journalism prof and blogger, argues it is time to release journalists from what the Economist calls “the straitjacket of pretending that they do not have opinions.” Rosen calls it the “view from nowhere”.

One way forward, suggests Mr Rosen, is to abandon the ideology of viewlessness and accept that journalists have a range of views; to be open about them while holding the reporters to a basic standard of accuracy, fairness and intellectual honesty; and to use transparency, rather than objectivity, as the new foundation on which to build trust with the audience, writes the Economist.

Mapping the world, one tweet and picture at a time

My well-documented obsession with maps continues. Eric Fischer has posted some wonderful visulizations of tweets and images uploaded from around the world. “See something or say something” shows pictures posted to Flickr as orange dots, and tweets sent as blue dots. White spots mark places with both tweets and pictures.

It’s fascinating how these data points map cities and regions, with arteries and sights showing up clearly. Also interesting is the difference between regions: While Europe shows up heavily photographed, South American and Asian cities show more blue dots for tweets. I wonder if that’s because a different photo sharing service is used there? It also could be that camera phones aren’t as widespread, even though I would think that’s unlikely. Take a look at the whole set.

Tokyo lights up with tweets and pictures. Image by Eric Fischer.

Another of Fischer’s visualizations answers the question of whether photos are posted mostly by tourists or by locals as well. For Washington, D.C., you can clearly see the top tourist spots: The National Mall with its monuments, Arlington cemetery and the zoo show up bright red, while the rest of the city is owned by the residents.

Photos in Washington taken by locals (blue) and tourists (red). Image by Eric Fischer.

Die beste Stadt der Welt

Die Neon will in ihrer neuesten Ausgabe die Frage beantworten, welche “die beste Stadt für dich” ist. Natürlich ist kaum einer, der in einer der 16 vorgestellten Städte wohnt, zufrieden mit der Beschreibung des eigenen Heimatorts.

Berlin zum Beispiel: Ganz klar von einem Zugezogenen geschrieben. Kein Ur-Berliner würde den gesamten ersten Absatz eines Textes über seine Stadt dem Wort “Party” widmen.

Von Ffrankziiska auf Flickr.

Wo Autor Philipp Schwenke allerdings recht hat: Berlin ist überall anders. Mitte, Wedding, Charlottenburg — jeder Stadtteil hat sein eigenes Gesicht.

In diesem Sinne ist Berlin ein bisschen wie New York: Ein Anziehungspunkt, voller Menschen, die nicht von dort kommen und sich doch die Stadt zu eigen machen. (Und, wie wir Berliner grimmig zugeben müssen, auch ein bisschen zur Stadt beitragen. Allerdings nicht die Prenzlberger Mutti-Schwaben).

Und wie in New York tun dann nach ein paar Jahren die Zugezogenen so, als kämen sie aus Berlin. Die da geborenen wissen allerdings, dass die Stadt nicht nur aus Manhattan/ Brooklyn/ Prenzlauer Berg/ Friedrichshain besteht.

Für uns ist Berlin nicht nur Nachtleben, sondern auch Tagträume. Berlin ist voller Gegensätze, und grade das vermeintlich hässliche, dreckige, nutzlose macht die Stadt so wunderschön.

Ach, Berlin, denke ich. Du großartige Schlampe. Du fettes Weib mit den verwischten Tatoos und den Krampfadern am Hintern. Dir zuzuhören, wenn du in der U-Bahn deine Feinde beschimpfst, wenn du nachts einmal quer von den Klos bis zur Theke das nächste Bier für dich und deinen Süßen bestellst, und wenn du – elfenhaft und verjüngt und verschönt – morgens um vier an der Oberbaumbrücke der Sonne beim Aufstehen zuschaust und seufzt.

. Hochgradig lesenswert. Besser kann man Berlin nicht beschreiben.

Transit systems: A window into cities

A transit system is the pulse of a city, the arrivals, departures and hubs like nodes connecting its people. Transit maps are a symbol of urban life and point of fascination for me.

Often, the transit system says a lot about the city and people it serves. Is it focused on bringing people to work from the suburbs? Does it connect inner-city neighborhoods? Are large areas difficult to reach, and why?

A page from "Transit Maps of the World" shows the evolution of Berlin's map.

Imagine my delight, then, to find a book about Transit Maps of the World.

“Urban transit maps echo the prevailing social and political trends of the societies they emanate from,” author Mark Ovenden writes. Alongside maps often dating back to the 19th century, they offer short narratives describing the systems’ evolution. (I haven’t read the book, so for reviews, head over to Amazon).

Transit maps often distort geographic distances in favor of clarity or readability. That can impact riders’ decisions: If a station appears farther away on a map, riders are less likely to travel there.

In a study of London’s tube map, NYU graduate professor Zhan Guo found that the way maps portray distances and connecting points trumps even rider’s own experience with the underground system.

The case study on the London Underground confirms that a schematic transit map indeed affects passengers’ path choices. Moreover, the map effect is almost two times more influential than the actual travel time. In other words, underground passengers trust the tube map (two times) more than their own travel experience with the system.

(via 2nd Ave Sagas)

The Washington Metro map is a good example of this distortion. Portrayed to scale, the outlying stops on the red and orange lines would be much farther apart, while the stops close to the National Mall are strechted out for better readability.

The map will be redesigned with the addition of a new line to the system, which prompted the blog Greater Greater Washington to hold a map design contest.

If anything, the entries there show: It’s incredibly difficult to design a map that both makes sense of the transit system and accurately represents a city’s geography. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Links of the Day: Telling the story of Middle East revolutions

The popular uprisings across the Middle East pose many challenges to news organizations. Obviously, there’s the challenge of getting and verifying information when regimes are actively hindering journalists’ work. Luckily and incredibly, people across the Middle East are posting to Twitter, Youtube and Facebook, producing a flow of information that requires other decisions from journalists.

Besides that, there is the challenge of presentation: How can we keep readers who may not be familiar with the distinct features of each country or the geography of the region interested this ongoing story, while also telling multiple parallel developments at the same time? Here, online presentations offer an opportunity to bundle a wealth of information and tell it in a way that satisfies both the casual observer and the involved reader.

Mapping the youth

A map is an obvious choice for presentation. The Guardian has created an interactive map of a key component in unrest across the region: the high percentage of people under 30, and the high unemployment rate among them, often despite a good education. A key factor is the map’s simplicity: The team picked only two variables (age and unemployment rate) for each country. Links to country-specific articles give further information, again focused on those two areas.

arab youth map

The Guardian's map on young populations across North Africa and the Arab world.

The Guardian also created a map of Twitter updates from the region.

Following the developments

The New York Times produced a very thorough presentation. Their “country by country look” includes a summary, map, latest Tweets and links to recent Times coverage. While including all this information, the presentation is very clean and immediately leads a user to the information. I like the additional feature of local time shown on a clock – something unusual that offers another connection to the protests.

NYT Egypt overview

The Egypt section of the New York Times' overview page.

Now, both the New York Times and the Guardian are large organizations and have resources dedicated to interactive storytelling. How can smaller newsrooms solve this issue?

Take inspiration from Al Jazeera. While also a large organization and undoubtedly a leader in coverage of the uprisings, Al Jazeera has packaged its content in a way that smaller media could implement as well.

Al Jazeera country logos

Al Jazeera created graphic logos for each country covered, both a navigation and a storytelling tool.

For example, its “Region in Turmoil” page offers a map and short summaries of country-specific developments, with links to coverage of the individual uprisings. In terms of graphics and page building, that approach is easy to duplicate.

Another smart move: Creating logos for the individual revolutions (see picture). “Lybia Uprising” and “Eye on Algeria” are such picture logos. Those pictures serve as navigation tools, but headlines as well. Egypts, for example, was changed to “Egypt: The Revolution” after Mubarak was overthrown. The images used as background give the user additional information about the state of events in each country, all at just a quick glance.

What other noteworthy presentations of Middle Eastern coverage have you seen?

Update, 3/11: The Washington Post’s Cory Haik explains how the Post build their interactive map, and Mark Luckie collected additional country-by-country features for the Post’s new innovations tumblog.

Using documents to tell stories

Reporters often collect and analyze government documents, reports, or public records, but until recently that analysis often happened during the reporting process, away from readers’ eyes. With Document Cloud, this process can be made public, allowing readers to browse the original material themselves – without requiring pdf downloads or for newsrooms to build their own embedded viewer.

Journalists have been finding some creative uses for doccloud, as the media blog 10,000 words noted in a recent post.

Transparent reporting

I recently used Document Cloud to analyze material collected by me and my fellow reporters for the inaugural National Security Reporting Project. I think the annotation tool is one of its most powerful, since it allows readers to go straight to the source and to discover information for themselves. Other features help reporters browse material quickly for names of people, places, and times, which can be insightful as well.

doccloud global warning

The page I built for the Global Warning website that holds the documents we collected.

The examples on 10,000 words show some of doccloud’s strenghts. Through the annotation tool, journalists can comment and explain exact parts of the document for readers to view.

doccloud annotation

Document Cloud's annotation tool in action.

Document Cloud also allows links to highlighted parts of a document, meaning a reporter can link from his or her text story to the exact phrase or page s/he is referring to. I think this leads to an increase in transparency for audiences: They can now see exactly where the reporter got their information, without having to browse hundreds of pages of a pdf-document.

A downside of Document Cloud is that while it has an embeddable viewer for single documents, there is no built-in easy way to present a collection of multiple documents pertaining to the same issue. I built a part of our website to let readers browse and discover the documents we collected. The Las Vegas Sun has come up with a very elegant solution. They built an interactive interface for their collection of hospital complaints. Color-coded dots lead to the document annotations referring to those issues.

las vegas sun

The interactive interface of the Las Vegas Sun allows users to easily browse the documents.

The examples Mark Luckie presents on 10,000 words also show that presenting a document in this way can allow for new, creative connections. The Washington Post annotated the U.S. Constitution to show which sections are currently subject of political debate – a great way to connect the discussions with the document.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work”


Graduation. Not pictured: All the wonderful teachers who helped me get there (except for Oly in the background).

… said Plato. I’m reaching a new beginning now, having completed my Master’s degree (all that’s left is the publication of our final project). At this milestone, I started to think about the impact teachers have had on my life. My Medill professors certainly deserve credit for many enriching experiences over the past year-and-a-half. I never thought it’d be possible to learn so much in such a short time.

There were many teachers before them as well. My language teachers especially left lasting impressions. When my first English teacher, a resolute woman with short brown hair, walked into our seventh grade class, she wouldn’t speak German. Instead she loudly and enthusiastically showered us in English words, none of which we understood.

The shock therapy worked. Four years later, I knew English well enough to spend a year at an American high school, where for some reason I was assigned to an AP English class. We read the Crucible and I did a report on McCarthyism. I was very proud when I got an A in my final semester.

At the same Virginia high school, my photography teacher instilled a love for this art in me that persists today. Developing my own pictures was magical, shaking the little container back and forth until I unrolled a wet filmstrip from it. Every step of the way, those photographs were my creations.

In my final two years, my English class was probably the best part of the schoolweek. Our teacher read current novels with us and challenged us to our own interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. We still meet for BBQs with him every summer.

And while I may not remember how to conjugate greek verbs in all three forms, the enthusiasm my greek teacher brought to instilling in us a “dead” language was contagious. It lead to a deep appreciation of Europe’s shared philosophical ancestors, such as the above-mentioned Plato.

capAt Medill, I was lucky enough to be taught by some equally dedicated and engaging professors. It started with Oly Oloroso, who pretty much has legendary status with students (if not school administrators). Marcel Pacatte’s encouragement and wit were priceless. Matt Mansfield, Owen Youngman, Alec Klein and Darnell Little are all experts in their fields, and they generously shared their knowledge with us. I learned more from them than I realized at the time.

Some of the best teachers, I found, are our peers. I’m blessed to call some amazingly talented and smart people my friends, people who I know will make a difference in our profession. My friends at Medill have been an invaluable part of my experience. They have shown me everything from specific skills to new perspectives on life – and, of course, a good time.

Thank you all for your friendship, advice and encouragement. I couldn’t have done it without you.