Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

May 15 2013

07:00

I am a coding denier

There is an exchange that sometimes takes place, perfectly described by Beth Ashton, between those who use technology, and those who don’t. It goes like this:

Prospective data journalist: ‘I’d really like to learn how to do data journalism but I can’t do statistics!’

Data journalist: ‘Don’t let that put you off, I don’t know anything about numbers either, I’m a journalist, not a mathematician!’

Prospective data journalist: ‘But I can’t code, and it all looks so codey and complicated’

Data journalist: That’s fine, NONE OF US can code. None of us. Open angle bracket back slash End close angle bracket.

“These people are coding deniers,” argues Beth.

I think she’s on to something. Flash back to a week before Beth published that post: I was talking to Caroline Beavon about the realisation of just how hard-baked ‘coding’ was into my workflow:

  • A basic understanding of RSS lies behind my ability to get regular updates from hundreds of sources
  • I look at repetitiveness in my work and seek to automate it where I can
  • I look at structure in information and use that to save time in accessing it

These are all logical responses to an environment with more information than a journalist can reasonably deal with, and I have developed many of them almost without realising.

They are responses as logical as deciding to use a pen to record information when human memory cannot store it reliably alone. Or deciding to learn shorthand when longhand writing cannot record reliably alone. Or deciding to use an audio recorder when that technology became available.

One of the things that makes us uniquely human is that we reach for technological supports – tools – to do our jobs better. The alphabet, of course, is a technology too.

But we do not argue that shorthand comes easy, or that audio recorders can be time consuming, or that learning to use a pen takes time.

So: ‘coding’ – whether you call it RSS, or automation, or pattern recognition – needs to be learned. It might seem invisible to those of us who’ve built our work patterns around it – just as the alphabet seems invisible once you’ve learned it. But, like the alphabet, it is a technology all the same.

But secondly – and more importantly – for this to happen as a profession we need to acknowledge that ‘coding’ is a skill that has become as central to working effectively in journalism as using shorthand, the pen, or the alphabet.

I don’t say ‘will be central’ but ‘has become‘. There is too much information, moving too fast, to continue to work with the old tools alone. From social networks to the quantified self; from RSS-enabled blogs to the open data movement; from facial recognition to verification, our old tools won’t do.

So I’m not going to be a coding denier. Coding is to digital information what shorthand was to spoken information. There, I’ve said it. Now, how can we do it better?

07:00

I am a coding denier

There is an exchange that sometimes takes place, perfectly described by Beth Ashton, between those who use technology, and those who don’t. It goes like this:

Prospective data journalist: ‘I’d really like to learn how to do data journalism but I can’t do statistics!’

Data journalist: ‘Don’t let that put you off, I don’t know anything about numbers either, I’m a journalist, not a mathematician!’

Prospective data journalist: ‘But I can’t code, and it all looks so codey and complicated’

Data journalist: That’s fine, NONE OF US can code. None of us. Open angle bracket back slash End close angle bracket.

“These people are coding deniers,” argues Beth.

I think she’s on to something. Flash back to a week before Beth published that post: I was talking to Caroline Beavon about the realisation of just how hard-baked ‘coding’ was into my workflow:

  • A basic understanding of RSS lies behind my ability to get regular updates from hundreds of sources
  • I look at repetitiveness in my work and seek to automate it where I can
  • I look at structure in information and use that to save time in accessing it

These are all logical responses to an environment with more information than a journalist can reasonably deal with, and I have developed many of them almost without realising.

They are responses as logical as deciding to use a pen to record information when human memory cannot store it reliably alone. Or deciding to learn shorthand when longhand writing cannot record reliably alone. Or deciding to use an audio recorder when that technology became available.

One of the things that makes us uniquely human is that we reach for technological supports – tools – to do our jobs better. The alphabet, of course, is a technology too.

But we do not argue that shorthand comes easy, or that audio recorders can be time consuming, or that learning to use a pen takes time.

So: ‘coding’ – whether you call it RSS, or automation, or pattern recognition – needs to be learned. It might seem invisible to those of us who’ve built our work patterns around it – just as the alphabet seems invisible once you’ve learned it. But, like the alphabet, it is a technology all the same.

But secondly – and more importantly – for this to happen as a profession we need to acknowledge that ‘coding’ is a skill that has become as central to working effectively in journalism as using shorthand, the pen, or the alphabet.

I don’t say ‘will be central’ but ‘has become‘. There is too much information, moving too fast, to continue to work with the old tools alone. From social networks to the quantified self; from RSS-enabled blogs to the open data movement; from facial recognition to verification, our old tools won’t do.

So I’m not going to be a coding denier. Coding is to digital information what shorthand was to spoken information. There, I’ve said it. Now, how can we do it better?

August 02 2012

14:18

A case study in online journalism: investigating the Olympic torch relay

Torch relay places infographic by Caroline Beavon

For the last two months I’ve been involved in an investigation which has used almost every technique in the online journalism toolbox. From its beginnings in data journalism, through collaboration, community management and SEO to ‘passive-aggressive’ newsgathering,  verification and ebook publishing, it’s been a fascinating case study in such a range of ways I’m going to struggle to get them all down.

But I’m going to try.

Data journalism: scraping the Olympic torch relay

The investigation began with the scraping of the official torchbearer website. It’s important to emphasise that this piece of data journalism didn’t take place in isolation – in fact, it was while working with Help Me Investigate the Olympics‘s Jennifer Jones (coordinator for#media2012, the first citizen media network for the Olympic Games) and others that I stumbled across the torchbearer data. So networks and community are important here (more later).

Indeed, it turned out that the site couldn’t be scraped through a ‘normal’ scraper, and it was the community of the Scraperwiki site – specifically Zarino Zappia – who helped solve the problem and get a scraper working. Without both of those sets of relationships – with the citizen media network and with the developer community on Scraperwiki – this might never have got off the ground.

But it was also important to see the potential newsworthiness in that particular part of the site. Human stories were at the heart of the torch relay – not numbers. Local pride and curiosity was here – a key ingredient of any local newspaper. There were the promises made by its organisers – had they been kept?

The hunch proved correct – this dataset would just keep on giving stories.

The scraper grabbed details on around 6,000 torchbearers. I was curious why more weren’t listed – yes, there were supposed to be around 800 invitations to high profile torchbearers including celebrities, who might reasonably be expected to be omitted at least until they carried the torch – but that still left over 1,000.

I’ve written a bit more about the scraping and data analysis process for The Guardian and the Telegraph data blog. In a nutshell, here are some of the processes used:

  • Overview (pivot table): where do most come from? What’s the age distribution?
  • Focus on details in the overview: what’s the most surprising hometown in the top 5 or 10? Who’s oldest and youngest? What about the biggest source outside the UK?
  • Start asking questions of the data based on what we know it should look like – and hunches
  • Don’t get distracted – pick a focus and build around it.

This last point is notable. As I looked for mentions of Olympic sponsors in nomination stories, I started to build up subsets of the data: a dozen people who mentioned BP, two who mentioned ArcelorMittal (the CEO and his son), and so on. Each was interesting in its own way – but where should you invest your efforts?

One story had already caught my eye: it was written in the first person and talked about having been “engaged in the business of sport”. It was hardly inspirational. As it mentioned adidas, I focused on the adidas subset, and found that the same story was used by a further six people – a third of all of those who mentioned the company.

Clearly, all seven people hadn’t written the same story individually, so something was odd here. And that made this more than a ‘rotten apple’ story, but something potentially systemic.

Signals

While the data was interesting in itself, it was important to treat it as a set of signals to potentially more interesting exploration. Seven torchbearers having the same story was one of those signals. Mentions of corporate sponsors was another.

But there were many others too.

That initial scouring of the data had identified a number of people carrying the torch who held executive positions at sponsors and their commercial partners. The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mail were among the first to report on the story.

I wondered if the details of any of those corporate torchbearers might have been taken off off the site afterwards. And indeed they had: seven disappeared entirely (many still had a profile if you typed in the URL directly - but could not be found through search or browsing), and a further two had had their stories removed.

Now, every time I scraped details from the site I looked for those who had disappeared since the last scrape, and those that had been added late.

One, for example – who shared a name with a very senior figure at one of the sponsors – appeared just once before disappearing four days later. I wouldn’t have spotted them if they – or someone else – hadn’t been so keen on removing their name.

Another time, I noticed that a new torchbearer had been added to the list with the same story as the 7 adidas torchbearers. He turned out to be the Group Chief Executive of the country’s largest catalogue retailer, providing “continuing evidence that adidas ignored LOCOG guidance not to nominate executives.”

Meanwhile, the number of torchbearers running without any nomination story went from just 2.7% in the first scrape of 6,056 torchbearers, to 7.2% of 6,891 torchbearers in the last week, and 8.1% of all torchbearers – including those who had appeared and then disappeared – who had appeared between the two dates.

Many were celebrities or sportspeople where perhaps someone had taken the decision that they ‘needed no introduction’. But many also turned out to be corporate torchbearers.

By early July the numbers of these ‘mystery torchbearers’ had reached 500 and, having only identified a fifth, we published them through The Guardian datablog.

There were other signals, too, where knowing the way the torch relay operated helped.

For example, logistics meant that overseas torchbearers often carried the torch in the same location. This led to a cluster of Chinese torchbearers in Stansted, Hungarians in Dorset, Germans in Brighton, Americans in Oxford and Russians in North Wales.

As many corporate torchbearers were also based overseas, this helped narrow the search, with Germany’s corporate torchbearers in particular leading to an article in Der Tagesspiegel.

I also had the idea to total up how many torchbearers appeared each day, to identify days when details on unusually high numbers of torchbearers were missing – thanks to Adrian Short – but it became apparent that variation due to other factors such as weekends and the Jubilee made this worthless.

However, the percentage per day missing stories did help (visualised below by Caroline Beavon), as this also helped identify days when large numbers of overseas torchbearers were carrying the torch. I cross-referenced this with the ‘mystery torchbearer’ spreadsheet to see how many had already been checked, and which days still needed attention.

Daily totals - bar chart

But the data was just the beginning. In the second part of this case study, I’ll talk about the verification process.

14:18

A case study in online journalism: investigating the Olympic torch relay

Torch relay places infographic by Caroline Beavon

For the last two months I’ve been involved in an investigation which has used almost every technique in the online journalism toolbox. From its beginnings in data journalism, through collaboration, community management and SEO to ‘passive-aggressive’ newsgathering,  verification and ebook publishing, it’s been a fascinating case study in such a range of ways I’m going to struggle to get them all down.

But I’m going to try.

Data journalism: scraping the Olympic torch relay

The investigation began with the scraping of the official torchbearer website. It’s important to emphasise that this piece of data journalism didn’t take place in isolation – in fact, it was while working with Help Me Investigate the Olympics‘s Jennifer Jones (coordinator for#media2012, the first citizen media network for the Olympic Games) and others that I stumbled across the torchbearer data. So networks and community are important here (more later).

Indeed, it turned out that the site couldn’t be scraped through a ‘normal’ scraper, and it was the community of the Scraperwiki site – specifically Zarino Zappia – who helped solve the problem and get a scraper working. Without both of those sets of relationships – with the citizen media network and with the developer community on Scraperwiki – this might never have got off the ground.

But it was also important to see the potential newsworthiness in that particular part of the site. Human stories were at the heart of the torch relay – not numbers. Local pride and curiosity was here – a key ingredient of any local newspaper. There were the promises made by its organisers – had they been kept?

The hunch proved correct – this dataset would just keep on giving stories.

The scraper grabbed details on around 6,000 torchbearers. I was curious why more weren’t listed – yes, there were supposed to be around 800 invitations to high profile torchbearers including celebrities, who might reasonably be expected to be omitted at least until they carried the torch – but that still left over 1,000.

I’ve written a bit more about the scraping and data analysis process for The Guardian and the Telegraph data blog. In a nutshell, here are some of the processes used:

  • Overview (pivot table): where do most come from? What’s the age distribution?
  • Focus on details in the overview: what’s the most surprising hometown in the top 5 or 10? Who’s oldest and youngest? What about the biggest source outside the UK?
  • Start asking questions of the data based on what we know it should look like – and hunches
  • Don’t get distracted – pick a focus and build around it.

This last point is notable. As I looked for mentions of Olympic sponsors in nomination stories, I started to build up subsets of the data: a dozen people who mentioned BP, two who mentioned ArcelorMittal (the CEO and his son), and so on. Each was interesting in its own way – but where should you invest your efforts?

One story had already caught my eye: it was written in the first person and talked about having been “engaged in the business of sport”. It was hardly inspirational. As it mentioned adidas, I focused on the adidas subset, and found that the same story was used by a further six people – a third of all of those who mentioned the company.

Clearly, all seven people hadn’t written the same story individually, so something was odd here. And that made this more than a ‘rotten apple’ story, but something potentially systemic.

Signals

While the data was interesting in itself, it was important to treat it as a set of signals to potentially more interesting exploration. Seven torchbearers having the same story was one of those signals. Mentions of corporate sponsors was another.

But there were many others too.

That initial scouring of the data had identified a number of people carrying the torch who held executive positions at sponsors and their commercial partners. The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mail were among the first to report on the story.

I wondered if the details of any of those corporate torchbearers might have been taken off off the site afterwards. And indeed they had: seven disappeared entirely (many still had a profile if you typed in the URL directly - but could not be found through search or browsing), and a further two had had their stories removed.

Now, every time I scraped details from the site I looked for those who had disappeared since the last scrape, and those that had been added late.

One, for example – who shared a name with a very senior figure at one of the sponsors – appeared just once before disappearing four days later. I wouldn’t have spotted them if they – or someone else – hadn’t been so keen on removing their name.

Another time, I noticed that a new torchbearer had been added to the list with the same story as the 7 adidas torchbearers. He turned out to be the Group Chief Executive of the country’s largest catalogue retailer, providing “continuing evidence that adidas ignored LOCOG guidance not to nominate executives.”

Meanwhile, the number of torchbearers running without any nomination story went from just 2.7% in the first scrape of 6,056 torchbearers, to 7.2% of 6,891 torchbearers in the last week, and 8.1% of all torchbearers – including those who had appeared and then disappeared – who had appeared between the two dates.

Many were celebrities or sportspeople where perhaps someone had taken the decision that they ‘needed no introduction’. But many also turned out to be corporate torchbearers.

By early July the numbers of these ‘mystery torchbearers’ had reached 500 and, having only identified a fifth, we published them through The Guardian datablog.

There were other signals, too, where knowing the way the torch relay operated helped.

For example, logistics meant that overseas torchbearers often carried the torch in the same location. This led to a cluster of Chinese torchbearers in Stansted, Hungarians in Dorset, Germans in Brighton, Americans in Oxford and Russians in North Wales.

As many corporate torchbearers were also based overseas, this helped narrow the search, with Germany’s corporate torchbearers in particular leading to an article in Der Tagesspiegel.

I also had the idea to total up how many torchbearers appeared each day, to identify days when details on unusually high numbers of torchbearers were missing – thanks to Adrian Short – but it became apparent that variation due to other factors such as weekends and the Jubilee made this worthless.

However, the percentage per day missing stories did help (visualised below by Caroline Beavon), as this also helped identify days when large numbers of overseas torchbearers were carrying the torch. I cross-referenced this with the ‘mystery torchbearer’ spreadsheet to see how many had already been checked, and which days still needed attention.

Daily totals - bar chart

But the data was just the beginning. In the second part of this case study, I’ll talk about the verification process.

September 13 2010

12:13

The first Birmingham Hacks/Hackers meetup – Monday Sept 20

Those helpful people at Hacks/Hackers have let me set up a Hacks/Hackers group for Birmingham. This is basically a group of people interested in the journalistic (and, by extension, the civic) possibilities of data. If you’re at all interested in this and think you might want to meet up in the Midlands sometime, please join up.

I’ve also organised the first Hacks/Hackers meetup for Birmingham on Monday September 20, in Coffee Lounge from 1pm into the evening.

Our speaker will be Caroline Beavon, an experienced journalist who caught the data bug on my MA in Online Journalism (and whose experiences I felt would be accessible to most). In addition, NHS Local’s Carl Plant will be talking briefly about health data and Walsall Council’s Dan Slee about council data.

All are welcome and no technical or journalistic knowledge is required. I’m hoping we can pair techies with non-techies for some ad hoc learning.

If you want to come RSVP at the link.

PS: There’s also a Hacks/Hackers in London, and one being planned for Manchester, I’m told.

July 02 2010

11:27

Music journalism and data (MA Online Journalism multimedia projects pt1)

I’ve just finished looking at the work from the Diploma stage of my MA in Online Journalism, and – if you’ll forgive the effusiveness – boy is it good.

The work includes data visualisation, Flash, video, mapping and game journalism – in short, everything you’d want from a group of people who are not merely learning how to do journalism but exploring what journalism can become in a networked age.

But before I get to the detail, a bit of background…

We’re in the second of three parts of the MA – the Diploma stage (read about the Certificate stage here). Students are studying 2 modules: Multimedia Journalism, and Production Labs.

The Multimedia Journalism module sees students explore a range of media platforms – audio, video, interactivity, data and visualisation (I’ll write about Production Labs at another point).

In their first assignment students explore a few of these platforms (you can see Caroline Beavon’s blog post about hers here). They then specialise in one medium for their final assignment.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not, given my own current interests – a majority of students decided to specialise in exploring data in some format, with video also proving popular. Over a series of posts I’ll look at some of the most interesting work – beginning with an example of how data journalism skills can be applied to music journalism.

Visualising crime, VFM, rainfall and everything else about music festivals

Caroline Beavon’s portfolio of data journalism investigating and visualising every aspect of the UK’s music festivals is collected at Datamud.

If you wanted to know which festival was the safest in terms of numbers of arrests and numbers of crimes, you could now see at a glance (with the context of each festival’s footfall).

In addition, the investigation unearthed some curious anomalies, such as the crackdown on untaxed vehicles at one Festival, while data looking at capacity compared with estimated attendance highlighted the peak that preceded Glastonbury taking a break (presumably to resolve security and fencing issues).

For a consumer angle, Caroline used crowdsourcing to compile a ‘value for money’ chart showing how much it would cost to see each festival’s performers as separate concerts.

And for a viral-friendly piece of visualisation, it’s hard to beat this image of festival rainfall in the past 3 decades.

festival rainfall in the past 3 decades

The most impressive aspect of Caroline’s work was that underlying the data and graphics was some solid journalism: combining public data, Freedom of Information requests, personal connections and a critical eye that followed up and verified the devil in the detail. It shows that you can do in-depth investigations in the field of music journalism.

Next, I’ll look at how one student used game mechanics to explore civic history, and data and mapping to investigate cycling collisions.

May 05 2010

14:00

Drawing out the audience: Inside BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub

The BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub is responsible for connecting with the huge organization’s audience for news-gathering purposes, and they’re good enough at it to have won a Royal Television Society award for their coverage of the 2007 UK floods. They’ve also been instrumental in the BBC’s coverage of the post-election protests in Iran, the July 7 bombings in London, and the recent earthquake in Chile, among other stories.

The hub sits in the “heart” of the BBC’s newsroom in London, and has been operating 24/7 since last fall with a staff of about twenty people. Journalism student Caroline Beavon posted a tantalizing video interview with unit head Matthew Eltringham earlier this year, but there was so much more I wanted to know. How does one find sources for stories happening overseas? Why centralize all social media interactions within one unit at the BBC? To what extent does audience reaction and suggestion drive the news agenda?

So when I bumped into one of the hub’s journalists at a talk in Hong Kong recently, I fairly pounced on her for an interview. Silvia Costeloe, a broadcast journalist at the UGC Hub, very kindly sat down with me to explain that the purpose of the hub is to find and connect with the people around news stories, wherever they are in the world and whatever tools or sites they use to communicate.

What our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own website too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

Hub journalists scour the Internet for pictures, videos, and other content that might contribute to a story, which they then verify and clear for use. But they also find people, sources who can be contacted by reporters in other departments within the BBC.

In many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so…what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well…For example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian Service at the time to verify the videos.

What sorts of specialized skills does this demand? “Well, you need to be a journalist, really,” said Costeloe. But the job is also about filtering the enormous amount of noise on the Internet for that one original tweet by an eyewitness. Costeloe said that finding those gems is mostly a matter of persistence and organization. Still, she offered a few practical hints, such as searching for people with a specific location listed in their Twitter profile, or putting “pix” or “vid” in your search to find multimedia content, or watching who local news organizations are watching.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the U.S. where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area.

But the hub does more than collect what’s already out there: it uses the BBC’s own website to solicit content, sources, and stories. Costeloe told me that much of their most interesting news gathering comes from comment forms at the bottom of stories, asking for feedback.

And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the U.K., but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account…but if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

The hub’s journalists answer emails generated by stories and read the comments. This makes them the primary back-channel from the BBC’s audience to its journalists. There was a fascinating and comprehensive 2008 study on the impact of “user-generated content” at the BBC, which found that “journalists and audiences display markedly different attitudes towards…audience material,” among many other things. So I asked Costeloe to what degree user feedback shapes the news agenda today.

Our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies…kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies…That was a big story in the U.S.. In the U.K. it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the U.S., loads of people wrote in in the U.K. with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big U.K. story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story.

Keeping track of what’s happening online. Finding sources close to the story. Paying attention to audience feedback. Aren’t those things every journalist should be doing in the Internet era? Yes, says Costeloe, but there is still a strong argument for a specialized unit.

If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think. But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because…often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is…So we contact them first-hand, and then…if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures.

But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting on a story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in.

We also discussed the BBC’s comment moderation approach, the working relationship between the hub and the developers of the BBC web site, how stories are updated based on user feedback, and other good stuff. Listen to the 20-minute interview in the player below, download the MP3 here, or read the full transcript which follows.

[See post to listen to audio]

JS: All right, so, can you tell me your name and what your job is?

SC: Yeah, sure. My name is Silvia Costeloe, and I am one of the journalists that works at the UGC Hub, which is a user-generated content hub at the heart of BBC news. And what our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so, obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own web site too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

JS: So, you were telling me earlier that there are specific reasons that the BBC has centralized the interaction with social media in one particular unit.

SC: Yeah, I think– I mean I’ve been on the team for a year or so, and the team’s quite a lot older than that. But it sort of started off when, you know, the Internet was getting bigger and getting more interactive. And there was a feeling that there should be a team, you know, it started off as a very small team [in mid 2005 --JS] I think sort of just to capture what was going on in social media, and see how that could feed into news, and sort of what difference that was– how that would evolve. And it’s grown quite steadily because it’s just been incredibly useful for news. Obviously the BBC’s a really big operation, so to have people that can be really focussed, especially on breaking stories, in finding eyewitnesses and case studies.

So whether it’s the Mumbai bombings, or whether it’s the Chilean earthquake, or whether it’s the Iran elections, to have people who can find those pictures, and find those eyewitness accounts, and then farm them out to output. So give them to TV, give them to radio, give them to online, and sort of make sure that, you know, the story’s being told across all our several platforms, and, you know, our output, is very important. I mean obviously journalists these days are increasingly, you know, it’s an absolute core part of their roles, sorting out, watching what’s going on in social media when they’re working on a story. But to have it centralized is really useful, especially when it comes to breaking stories, because, you know, our reporters will often be sent out on field location. They might not be living somewhere, so they’ll have to travel somewhere, and in the meantime we’re doing lots of news gathering, we’re giving them contacts of people on the ground.

So if there’s an earthquake we can put a form, even just putting a form on a story because we’ve got lots of users, obviously, using the BBC web site. Lots of really interesting people will write in, saying that, you know, if they’ve been affected. Something that’s obviously, a lot– you might have to trawl through a lot to find that special story. And it’s maybe something that a reporter hasn’t got the time to do when they’re sort of running out to be, to do field work. So we can kind of trawl through what’s happening on blogs, what’s happening on Facebook groups. I mean, recently there was a story, a big explosion in Connecticut, and within an hour of the explosion there was a Facebook group devoted to the explosion, and the families of the explosion, because no one really knew what was going on. So that proved to be a really good source of news gathering. But you can’t expect a journalist on that sort of breaking story who’s got to do a lot of output as well to be that focussed and find everything that’s going on on social media, whereas our team tries. And when we find those people then we share them, we share them with the rest of the BBC.

JS: So what exactly is it that you give to other reporters? It’s both sources and content?

SC: Yeah, or pictures. So often when there’s a breaking story, often it’s just pictures that are needed. So if we find the pictures on the web, we get permission. I mean depending on what kind of story it is, whether we feel that it’s covered by fair use or not. Obviously if it’s stills it isn’t. So we try and get– and talk to people, and first of all get their permission to run the pictures. So we might have, in many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so we then, what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well. So we’re giving out these contacts and we’ve verified them beforehand. So it really speeds things up, once we give our people out. And, sort of, you know, it– wires now are often sending round YouTube videos, and often they’re absolutely fine and we’ll run with them. But, for example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian service at the time to verify the videos. So, I think that’s how it works, quite well, in a sort of centralized way.

JS: Interesting. So what specialized skills does someone working in this type of news gathering need?

SC: Well, you need to be, you need to be– well, you need to be a journalist really. So have a sort of interest in the story, and have a bit of a, I don’t know, sort of a nose for a story. And you need to want to sort of dig around, and you need to be interested and have a passion for social media, really. I mean often, the other thing that we’ll do is we’ll find stories in social media that maybe aren’t being covered by the mainstream outlets, and make something of those stories. So, you need to, yeah, you need to know how to sort of dig around. I mean, there’s lots of websites out there, so it doesn’t really matter, I guess, what you use. I mean, different people use different things. There’s the main ones that everyone uses, like Twitter and Facebook, you sort of have be across those, but you know there’s lots of aggregators, and whichever ones people want to use, I think it’s sort of up to them.

But yeah, you need a real passion for it, and you need to want to dig, and you need to be able to kind of go back, you know, and you need to know who you’ve contacted and who you haven’t, so it’s quite a lot of organization. And, yeah, the usual journalist skills really. But on a breaking story as well, you need to know how to refresh a lot and know what sort of searches to do, because it’s not– I mean there’s so much noise on Twitter as well, with so many people re-tweeting. You know, when there’s a breaking news event, if it’s a big event, it can be absolute hell to find that one tweet which is actually a person saying, I’m living here and this happening down my street. That can be really tough. So, a real notion of how to search for– how to search for pictures, and how to search for people with experiences. I think that’s sort of, that’s a skill that comes over a lot of practical work, really. Looking for stories and people.

JS: Any hints you can give us, on how to make sense of a flood of Twitter messages and find that one good one?

SC: That’s the– it’s difficult, it’s difficult. I mean obviously if you search by location, so if you go to search engines like search Twitter, you can, if people have entered their location you can search for that. So the Chilean earthquake we’re looking for the epicenter, then kind of fan out fifteen, twenty miles around that and see who’s tweeting around there. But a lot of really good stuff, you know, a lot of people won’t put where they’re from, or the search engine’s not that reliable, so, I mean that’s one of the many things you can do. Again, there’s search engines that will let you look for, sort of search people’s profiles as well. So again there, you might be able to see if it’s someone who’s in a specific area, they might have mentioned that there.

Or you might, if you’re looking for pix and vids, often just putting in “pix” or “vid” in your search actually really helps, because often then you’ll get the link to that YouTube video that you want to see. So often it’s really simple things, but it’s just, sort of, thinking around them, and coming up with different searches, because if you’re just going to search for “earthquake in Chile” you’re going to have literally thousands of tweets every, you know, every handful of seconds. And it’s just too much, you can’t sort of physically go through everything.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area where, that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the US where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area. So sometimes it’s their local reporter so it might not be useful for you because they might, you know, they might be working for a different news outlet. But often local, if you’re working– I mean we work globally, so obviously our local knowledge isn’t always, you know, will never be the knowledge of a local news agent. So if you go to them and see who they’re talking to, maybe that can also help you find interesting conversations, as opposed to just looking for the hash tag.

JS: Right. Would you consider that there’s a community of users around your news, or a community of readers?

SC: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a community of users, and we’ve got our blog, and we’ve got our sort of community of people commenting on stories. So, we’ve got talking points, and we publish three or four talking points a day, and write blogs, and people talk about that. So there’s definitely a community of people who come back, and return. But we also link to our talking points or ask for comments on stories. So we’re always sort of expanding that community, who will come because they’re interested in a specific story and might want to have their say and contribute in that way.

And often the most interesting stuff that we get is, we’ll sometimes put up post forms where people, you know, just kind of, just a little form at the bottom of a story, saying, you know, contact us, send us your comments. Are you in the area? Send us your story. And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the UK, but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account, so to speak, but they are– if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

JS: Right. Do you have to manage that? I mean do you ever– do you have to moderate flame wars, do you have to delete offensive comments? What’s involved in terms of work load on your side in managing that group of people?

SC: Well we’ve got sort of community boards and we, you know, everything is pre-moderated so there is a lot of work involved in terms of moderation. We do actually, we do do reactive debates as well, but I’d say most of our debates are probably pre-moderated. So somebody does read the comments before they go up. So there’s, you know, by all means there’s a lot of work in moderation in comments. There’s only so much that we can get away with saying as there’s kind of a responsibility I suppose, with the BBC, to have certain standards, I guess, in your comments. And if people– we’d sort of be held liable for all sorts of things on our web site. [US sites are generally not legally liable for comments, but UK sites probably are --JS] So, yes, everything is moderated. Most things are moderated.

JS: How many people handle all of that moderation?

SC: We’ve just, to be honest, we’ve just gotten a wholly new moderation system, so I can’t really say, but we’ve just literally outsourced our moderation, so I’ve got no idea now how many people have been–

JS: Oh, interesting.

SC: Yeah, because we did it in-house until about a month ago. And now it’s gone. [At the end of 2008 the BBC said there were four in-house moderators for Have Your Say --JS] So I’m sure there’ll be– there’s an editor’s blog actually that we, we’ll be sort of posting up what’s going on with the new moderation, how that’s going. But you know it’s a lot of work. We get a lot of, a lot of people writing in wanting to talk about stories, and commenting on stories, but within that we also get really valuable, well obviously we get valuable comments, but we also get valuable stories for news gathering purposes, and case studies to illustrate and to add to stories, whether it’s UK based– if it’s a health story and people have had experiences of a particular story, or, as I said if it’s a bigger event then people who are sort of out in the field.

JS: And how many people are the UGC team?

SC: Oh it’s about, I don’t really– we work rotas so maybe 20 or so? I couldn’t be quoted on that. [There were 23 in September, according to this report --JS] But yeah, there’s a lot of people because some of us are assigned to specific areas, and contribute a lot of content to the BBC news web site, so some people are more web site production journalists, so they’re writing lots of stories for the BBC News web site, or stories that come from the experiences of specific people who’ve got in touch with us. Whereas others are specifically chasing people and comments and breaking news stories.

JS: So what are the areas? How do you divide that work up?

SC: There’s different areas in terms of– someone’s covering Europe, and the States, and so it’s geographical areas.

JS: And did you say you rotate people through? Did I understand that, or…?

SC: We rotate in the sense that we open 24 hours, so there’s always someone overnight.

JS: Oh, okay, okay.

SC: Yes, sorry, yeah, no, we rotate time-wise.

JS: Got it.

SC: So it’s a bigger team than it seems when you’re, when you’re out there in the day time, because there might only be eight people or something in the day time, but then there’ll be someone overnight as well.

JS: Right, okay. Yeah, right.

SC: So there’s always someone on the news desk.

JS: So how do you see this evolving? What do you see happening in the future?

SC: Well, you know, I’m part of a wider team, so I’m not really privy to a lot of the, sort of, wider conversations that go on at a higher level. I think there’ll always be– I think it’s a very important role. I mean lots of people say, the view of many people is that this team will eventually die as journalists get more and more advanced at using social media tools. Which I completely— I agree that journalists will get a lot more advanced, I think a lot of them are already, and I mean it’s just such an obvious, I mean I don’t think you can be a journalist anymore, definitely not in the future. If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think.

But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because when you’re getting in touch with people who are, you know, going through– you know often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is. And the problem is, if everyone at the BBC is trying to get in touch with someone, trying to get their pictures, trying to– you can’t possibly– that needs to be an organized approach. So if we contact them first-hand, and then we can give the details, if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures. But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting reporting on story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in, to find the comment, you know, written by the family of someone who’s just suffered an event. They just wouldn’t have the physical time, or the patience in a moment of stress to go through it, to go through that, because often it is a matter of sticking to the story and trying to find something, and finding that needle in a haystack.

JS: So you mentioned finding angles on a story. To what extent do discussions happening on social media direct your coverage, or direct the BBC’s choice of what stories to do?

SC: Well, I think in terms of completely new stories, I mean that happens all the time. I mean our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies, that was a big story in the UK and the US recently. Buggies got, dangerous buggies, it was a consumer story, you know, kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies. We ran US– that was a big story in the US. In the UK it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the US, loads of people wrote in in the UK with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big UK story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story, you know, new– if you’re covering a massive disaster like an earthquake, there’ll be people writing in with really interesting new stories, whether it’s about not being able to get certain aid through, or sometimes really unexpected angles as well. It’s just trying to cover a story in as many, trying to get as many stories out, valuable stories out, as possible. And often we’ll write something up, and people will write in and say, you know, “that picture is not of a Boeing 572, it’s of something else.” So sometimes people will just write in and just point out errors and mistakes, or suggestions, and so we take all that into account as well.

JS: You actually update the stories based on people’s comments?

SC: Yeah, well if someone writes in, often I won’t be the one who’s written the original story, but if I’m, you know, someone sends an email saying, “oh, that’s the wrong ship,” that happened a couple of weeks ago, and then someone else writes in saying something similar, you’ve got alarm bells going and you need to double– obviously you don’t just, you don’t take that that as certain, but you will do more digging. I mean obviously you go through it and you have a look, and then you update the story. I mean, yeah, absolutely.

JS: Right. Does your team have any say in the software design in all of the system? You know, what the actual interface for comments are? Do you work with the developers, or how is that…?

SC: Yeah. I mean, the future media technology team, they are, at the BBC they’re the people who actually do the build. But it’s sort of, they do that working along side us. So we’ll have like one or two people in the team who will constantly have meetings with them, and you know, check out their design, kind of product manage it to certain degree. So yes, absolutely they work closely with the journalists. They don’t work as closely as, you know, it’s not sort of a scrum, agile kind of session world, although it is in other areas of the BBC. It’s more, you know, it’s more the two teams working sort of in parallel, rather than sort of physically sitting together. But it, you know, it works.

JS: Right. Okay. Thank you very much.

SC: No problem.

JS: I realize you’re terribly jet-lagged, so I apologize for ambushing you, but–

SC: Well I apologize for any slurred words. It is due to the jet-lag.

JS: All right, thanks a lot.

February 25 2010

11:24

Experiments in online journalism

Last month the first submissions by students on the MA in Online Journalism landed on my desk. I had set two assignments. The first was a standard portfolio of online journalism work as part of an ongoing, live news project. But the second was explicitly branded ‘Experimental Portfolio‘ – you can see the brief here. I wanted students to have a space to fail. I had no idea how brave they would be, or how successful. The results, thankfully, surpassed any expectations I had. They included:

There are a range of things that I found positive about the results. Firstly, the sheer variety – students seemed to either instinctively or explicitly choose areas distinct from each other. The resulting reservoir of knowledge and experience, then, has huge promise for moving into the second and final parts of the MA, providing a foundation to learn from each other.

Secondly, by traditional standards a couple of students did indeed ‘fail’ to produce a concrete product. But that was what the brief allowed – in fact, encouraged. They were not assessed on success, but research, reflection and creativity. The most interesting projects were those that did not produce anything other than an incredible amount of learning on the part of the student. In other words, it was about process rather than product, which seems appropriate given the nature of much online journalism.

Process, not product

One of the problems I sought to address with this brief was that students are often result-focused and – like journalists and news organisations themselves – minimise risk in order to maximise efficiency. So the brief took away those incentives and introduced new ones that rewarded risk-taking because, ultimately, MA-level study is as much about testing new ideas as it is about mastering a set of skills and area of knowledge. In addition, the whole portfolio was only worth 20% of their final mark, so the stakes were low.

Some things can be improved. There were 3 areas of assessment – the third, creativity, was sometimes difficult to assess in the absence of any product. There is the creativity of the idea, and how the student tackles setbacks and challenges, but that could be stated more explicitly perhaps.

Secondly, the ‘evaluation’ format would be better replaced by an iterative, blog-as-you-go format which would allow students to tap into existing communities of knowledge, and act as a platform for ongoing feedback. The loop of research-experiment-reflect-research could be integrated into the blog format – perhaps a Tumblelog might be particularly useful here? Or a vlog? Or both?

As always, I’m talking about this in public to invite your own ideas and feedback on whether these ideas are useful, and where they might go next. I’ll be inviting the students to contribute their own thoughts too.

November 09 2009

09:40

#FollowJourn: @carolinebeavon/multimedia journalist

#FollowJourn: Caroline Beavon

Who? At time of writing a student on the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, but previously a journalist at Kerrang.

What? Music lover with passion for music journalism, who tweets regularly about her course, work and events she’s attending.

Where? Also writes a personal blog at this link.

Contact? On Twitter.

Just as we like to supply you with fresh and innovative tips every day, we’re recommending journalists to follow online too. They might be from any sector of the industry: please send suggestions (you can nominate yourself) to judith or laura at journalism.co.uk; or to @journalismnews.


Similar Posts:



Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl