MAS 700 – News and Participatory Media

2017 Spring

Wednesdays, 1-4:00pm, E15-341 (Media Lab, 75 Amherst/20 Ames St., Cambridge, MA)

Instructor: Ethan Zuckerman (with Special Guest Stars). TA: Holly Haney.

These are interesting times for journalism. Existing business models are failing. Bloggers, Twitter users, bots, sensors, drones, activists, propagandists, fabulists 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, 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 considers the news as a design and engineering challenge, including questions like:
+ What tools will we use to report news in the future? What channels will distribute it?
+ How big a problem is “fake news” and can we root it out algorithmically?
+ When is it appropriate for people reporting news to advocate for political positions? For their perspective and view of events?
+ 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? A website that profits from rumor-mongering?
+ 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. 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 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
– 75 minutes discussion of reading and issues raised
– 15 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 8: Meet and greet, Overview, Civic Media demo
Discussion of the structure of the class, conversation about the shifts in the news environment in a digital age

Reading for February 15: Review these collections of journalism tools for inspiration for this week’s assignment

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

Assignment for February 15: Select a tool that you believe has important implications for the future of news or storytelling. Write about the tool on the class blog. Come prepared to present a quick introduction to using the tool for your classmates.


February 15: The New Toolkit

In black and white movies about the golden age of newspapers, the journalist’s toolkit included a manual typewriter, a press card and a bottle of bourbon. Today’s journalist is often asked to report a story online, lay it out for publication on paper, accompany it with a video feature or an interactive data visualization and promote it via social media. For the first half of the class special guest star Alexis Hope will present some of the tools, introducing you to their capabilities and uses. For the second half of the class, students will show off some of their favorite tools and offer instructions in how to get started using these tools.

Assignment, due February 22: 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 22:

February 22: How did we get here?
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 March 1: 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 March 1:

March 1: 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 March 8: 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 March 8:

March 8: 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 15: 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 15:


March 15: 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 22: 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

Optional event: On the afternoon of March 16, we will have a brainstorming session hosted at Center for Civic Media on the idea of “wide news”. Working with team members from Google News, we will explore prototype ideas for incorporating diverse news perspectives into the content discovery process. No design or tech experience needed, feel free to join if you are able. This event will take place in the Center for Civic Media Lab 2-5 P.M. March 16th.

Required reading for March 22:

Optional Reading for March 22:

March 22: News and Data Visualization
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 12: 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 12:

Optional reading for April 12:

March 30: No Class, MIT spring break

April 5: No Class, MIT Media Lab member meeting

April 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 April 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 April 19:
To be announced

UPDATE: Read the assigned readings for April 26 (below) for April 19 due to schedule change. April 19th will deal with Media and Civic Participation.

April 19: Whose News?

Who makes the news we encounter? Whose stories get to be news, and whose go unreported? Newsrooms are facing a crisis of diversity, where staffing cuts appear to be getting in the way of creating reporting opportunities for women and people of color, who are underrepresented in US newsrooms. But there are further diversity crises in terms of who is reported on, who is cited, who writes opeds and opinion pieces, and what issues are covered. Furthermore, there’s ongoing questions of whether journalism itself has pervasive left-wing biases. We’ll hear from researchers at Center for Civic Media, who will try to clarify and complicate these questions.

Required reading for April 26:

Explore for April 26:

April 26: 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 3: Post to the blog one piece of news written by someone from or written about your own community. You are free to interpret your community on the basis of geography, identity, or any other factors you see fit. Consider how this piece and perspective reflect or disagree with your own point of view.

Also due May 3: Final project presentation. Well before now, you should be getting together with possible teammates and coming up with a final project. On the 3rd, you’ll be expected to present these ideas, along with 3 slides explaining them, for feedback and critique.

Reading for May 3:

Recommended Reading:

May 3: Who’s News and Final Project Pitch
Each team will present their proposal final project in 3 slides. If there’s sufficient time, Alexis Hope 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.

No more assignments – all work now focuses on the final project

Required reading for May 10:

May 10: 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 17: Final Project
Continue work on the final project.

No reading

May 17: 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.

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