MAS 700 – Future of News and Participatory Media
Wednesdays, 1-4:00pm, E15-344 (Media Lab, 75 Amherst/20 Ames St., Cambridge, MA)
Journalism is at a crossroads. Existing business models are failing. Bloggers, Twitter users, bots, and advertisers are producing more news than ever before. 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 and professionals (and algorithms) report and share news. And yet, the public need for high-quality information about current events remains unchanged.
This class considers the news as a design and engineering challenge, including questions like:
+ Who/what delivers the news of the future?
+ How can we engineer tools for journalists to make sense of Big Data, 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?
+ 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. They have the option to develop their final projects in partnership with guests from the newsrooms at The Boston Globe and WBUR.
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. It is mandatory for the final assignment: based on the previous week’s assignments, or based on an interesting unsolved reporting problem, you will be designing and testing a novel reporting tool or technique. You must report a story using this tool/technique, and at least one classmate must report using your tool as well (reciprocity is expected and encouraged).
Classes are structured as follows:
- 60 minutes of discussion, focused on the assigned reading
- 10 minute break
- 70 minutes discussion/critique of previous week’s assignment
- 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 5: Meet and greet, Civic Media demo
Discussion of the structure of the class, conversation about the shifts in the news environment in a digital age
Assignment, due February 12: 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.
Prior year examples: Adrienne’s Media Diary, Erhardt’s Media Diary, Catherine’s Media Diary, Jean’s Media Diary
Reading for February 12:
- The Creation of Media, Introduction and Chapter 3, Paul Starr
- We the Media, Chapter 1, Dan Gillmor
- The Elements of Journalism, Introduction and Chapter 1, Kovach and Rosenstiel
- “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier”, Rolf Dobelli
February 12: The Newsroom and Everything After
How did we end up with the news media we currently rely on? We’ll work together to identify strengths and weaknesses in existing and evolving forms of news production. We will host distinguished guests from the newsrooms at the Boston Globe & WBUR. Our guests will participate in the conversation and then pitch us specific real-world news challenges as possible final projects for the students.
Assignment, due February 19: 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 for February 19:
- Clay 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
- “Freedom of the Press Foundation Established to Crowd-Fund Transparency Journalism”, Press Release. (Edward Snowden has recently joined their board.)
February 19: Accountability journalism
What do we need to know to be effective civic actors? What’s the role of the news in exposing wrongdoing? In enabling civic participation?
Assignment, due February 26: Classmate Profile / Personal Data
You will be randomly assigned another student in the class and someone else will be assigned to you. Your job is to thoroughly research your subject online and discover as much information as possible about them on the Internet to create a detailed profile. Then you may choose to use a 30-minute interview with your subject as fact-checking. Your research and interview will be the basis for a profile of the subject. We recommend that you do not post these profiles to the class blog but rather share them in advance of the class via email.
Prior year examples: Erhardt Interviews Julia
Reading for February 26:
- “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science”, Chris Mooney
- Deadly Spin, Excerpt, Wendell Potter
- Bill Moyers interview with Potter (here and here)
- Q+A with Potter in The New York Times
- “Lies, Damned Lies and Fact-checking”, Mark Hemingway
- LazyTruth by Matt Stempeck
February 26: 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 5: Fact-checking
Take a look at LazyTruth by Matt Stempeck. How can we do fact-checking that is more likely to meet its mark and make a difference in persuading people that the facts are, indeed, true? Using that question as a starting point, choose a text that makes truth claims—a political speech, a position paper from an advocacy group, a corporate press release—and write a story that evaluates truth claims contained within and thinks carefully about how to leverage the facts to convince the readers of their veracity. Examples: Alistair on Climate Change, MC annotates the Westboro Baptist Church
Reading for March 5:
- “Andy Carvin: The Future of Journalism?”, Noah Echols interviews Andy Carvin
- “The Problem With Tweeting a Revolution”, Jacob Silverman reviews Andy Carvin’s book
- “The Curator’s Challenge”, Meg Heckman
- “International Reporting in an Age of Participatory Media”, Ethan Zuckerman
- “Should Reddit Be Blamed for the Spreading of a Smear?”, Jay Caspian Kang
March 5: 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 12: 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 12:
Optional reading for March 12:
- 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 12: 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 March 19: 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 March 19:
- 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 19:
- 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 19: News and Data Visualization
Catherine and Erhardt 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 2: 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 before taking on the assignment. The full assignment will be due on April 2; your chosen dataset and proposal for how to use it will be due March 26 as a post on the blog, where we’ll provide feedback.
Prior year examples: Trayvon Martin Media Coverage, Mapping the News, Romanian Memes, Boston Restaurant Suspensions, Congressional Partisanship
Reading for April 2:
- “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier”, Rolf Dobelli
- 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
Explore for April 2:
March 26: No Class
MIT Spring Break
April 2: 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 April 9: Working from a news story that reports on a contemporary issue (domestic or international), create a companion piece that offers a reader actions they might take after reading the previous story.
Experience for April 9:
Choose at least five ways to experience the news from this document and come ready to discuss your experiences next week.
Reading for April 9:
- Glasser, Theodore L. 1982. “Play, Pleasure and the Value of Newsreading.” Communication Quarterly 30, no. 2: 101-107. Communication & Mass Media Complete.
- Yahoo’s Sleek News Digest Swims Against the Stream
- Circa wants to be a mobile wire service for breaking news — one that learns what you know
- Facebook Wants to Be a Newspaper. Facebook Users Have Their Own Ideas.
- Significant and Silly at Buzzfeed
- Why Audio Never Goes Viral and Ethan’s response
- NSA Files: Decoded
April 9: News as Experience
We have more formats for experiencing the news than ever before, from television, radio, and newspapers to search engines, mobile apps, tweets, blogs, feeds, videos, social media shares, and the list keeps growing. At the same time, journalism is evolving to reach people in these new media through mechanisms like clickbait, listicles, push notifications, and personalization. What affordances do different formats offer? How do our cognitive experiences of the news (retention, emotional engagement, empowerment) vary with the format? How does each form address the reader/listener/viewer and what is the model of engagement? What values are embedded in different news experiences?
Assignment, due April 16: Final Project Proposal
Work on your proposal for a final project—must be in the form of both a blog post and a three minute presentation delivered in class.
Reading for April 16:
- Investigate Encyclo, especially the sections on tech companies
- A simple and provocative app: Timehop
April 16: Final Project Proposal Presentations
Each Final Project team will deliver a 3 minute presentation and receive feedback from the rest of the class.
Assignment, due April 30: Final Project
Continue work on the final project; be ready to talk about how a non-team member would use your tool or process.
Reading for April 30:
April 23: No Class
Media Lab Member Week
April 30: Final Project User Story Working Session
Catherine and Erhardt will offer a crash course in user-centered design, specifically on developing user stories and workshops to help Final Project teams with design, presentation, and the requirement that a non-team member report a story using your tool or process. We will workshop each other’s final projects.
Assignment, due May 7: Final Project
Continue work on the final project.
Reading for May 7:
- “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, Clay Shirky
- “The Reconstruction of American Journalism”, Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson
- 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
- OPTIONAL: “Is Scientific Publication About to Be Disrupted”, Michael Nielsen
- OPTIONAL: “Piracy is Progressive Taxation”, Tim O’Reilly
May 7: 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 13: Final Project
Continue work on the final project.
Reading for May 13:
May 14: Presenting the Final Projects
With snacks, mandatory revelry and merriment
If possible, please plan to join us from 1pm into the early evening—we will spend 2.5–3 hours presenting work and will adjourn to one of Cambridge’s many bars to continue the conversation over drinks.