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News in the Age of Participatory Media

MAS S61 – News and Participatory Media
Wednesdays, 2-5pm, E15-244 (Media Lab, 75 Amherst/20 Ames St., Cambridge, MA)

The news ecosystem has changed radically in the past decade. US newspapers have shed jobs and closed foreign bureaus as existing business models have failed, and new business models are still emerging. Professional reporters work alongside bloggers and social media users. Sometimes these amateurs commit isolated acts of journalism… and sometimes they emerge as the most knowledgeable sources on complex issues. A revolution in tools and techniques – the rise of inexpensive digital still and video cameras, the emergence of platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Storify – are changing how amateurs and professionals report and share news.

Rather than exploring the history of journalism and challenges to existing models of news production, this class will consider the news as an engineering challenge. How do we discover what events are taking place in different parts of the world? How do we explain the importance of these events to readers or viewers? What can readers of a story do to respond to events? We’ll explore the systems journalists and others have used to report and share the news, but we’ll focus on developing our own tools and methods to address these challenges.

The first nine weeks of class feature 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:
– 80 minutes of discussion, focused on the assigned reading
– 10 minute break
– 80 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. 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.

February 8: Meet and greet – Discussion of the structure of the class, conversation about the shifts in the news environment in a digital age

Assignment, due February 15:
Maintain a media diary, tracking all media you encounter in the course of a week, where it originated, whether it was news or entertainment media. Present your diary, preferably in a way that offers summary and analysis of patterns you’ve discovered from keeping it.

Reading for February 15:

  • “The Creation of Media”, Introduction and Chapter 3, Paul Starr
  • “We the Media”, Chapter 1, Dan Gilmor
  • “The Elements of Journalism”, Intro and Chapter 1, Kovach and Rosenstiel

February 15: 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.

Assignment, due February 22: The 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. 

Reading for February 22:
Clay Shirky’s 2009 Shorenstein Center lecture

Stories on Bell, CA including:

February 22: 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 29:
You will be randomly assigned another student in the class. Your job is to thoroughly research your subject in preparation for a maximum 30 minute interview. Your research and interview will be the basis for a profile of the subject. Interview assignments are non-reciprocal.

Reading for February 29:

February 29: 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 14: 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 the rhetorical techniques employed. (Potter’s analysis of propaganda techniques may be helpful here.) 

Reading for March 7, 14:

March 7: FUD Hackathon
We will not have a traditional class this day. Instead, we’ll be joining attendees of the Berkman Center/Center for Civic Media conference on “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” in a hackathon, building tools designed to identify and mitigate the influence of astroturf, spin and PR on news reporting.

March 14: News and data visualization
One of the promises of the era of big data is 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 March 21: The 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. 

Reading for March 21:

March 21: Go Long
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 4: The 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 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.

Reading for April 4:

March 28 – no class

April 4: 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 April 11:
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. 

Reading for April 11:

April 11: The Media and Civic Participation
Journalists sometimes describe themselves as working for “the public” rather than for the corporations who pay their salaries. Is a journalist’s role limited to informing citizens about important events, or should journalists help citizens find ways to engage with issues in their local and global communities? Do concerns about “advocacy journalism” outweigh concerns about lack of civic engagement and involvement?

Assignment, due April 18:
Near and far – report a story that has both local and global aspects. This could be a local story that exemplifies a larger trend (a foreclosure in Cambridge that helps explain a national mortgage crisis) or a local connection to a global story (reactions from the local Russian community to election protests in Moscow.) One way of creating a local connection is to connect an issue to concrete actions a reader can undertake.

Reading for April 18:

April 18: News as an ecosystem
One of the themes of this course is the idea that news can be reported, confirmed, contradicted and contextualized in any number of different media. How do stories move from new media to broadcast media, or vice versa? In a media ecosystem, who acts as a witness, as a verifier, a contextualizer, an amplifier?

Assignment, due May 2:
Present the design for your final project, your reporting tool, system or technique.

Reading for May 2:

April 25 – No Class. Media Lab Spring Meeting

May 2: The “O” word
Much of the debate about the rise of citizen media centers on the idea of “objectivity”. Is objectivity worth striving for, either for professional journalists or citizen newsgatherers? Is fairness or balance a more reasonable goal? Verification? Transparency?

Assignment, due May 9: Continuing work on the final project

Reading for May 9:
Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“, Clay Shirky
more TBD

May 9: 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 te survival of expensive-to-produce types of news. Who pays for the news we need to function as informed and engaged citizens?

Assignment for May 16: Continuing work on the final project

reading for May 16:
Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press“, Jay Rosen
“The Structure of Foreign News”, Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge

May 16: What’s News and What’s Not
What stories and subjects get to be news, and which rarely get discussed? How equitable is the distribution of media attention, and what are the political and social issues associated with distributions of media attention?

Assignment for May 23: Complete and prepare to present your tool, and two pieces of reporting (yours, and someone else’s) using the new tool.

No reading for May 23

May 23: Presentation of final projects
With snacks, optional revelry and merriment

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