Introducing the “Whose Facts Matter?” project

Journalism, increasingly, has become a computational profession, and that brings a new set of questions about core journalism values such as fairness, objectivity, and truth itself.  This summer, I started work on a long-form writing project that engages these questions in a novel way – through a multi-media graphic narrative. It’s still a work in progress, but I invite you to take a look at “Whose Facts Matter? A Cautionary Tale” and offer your thoughts. For an overview of the ideas in the project, here are slides from the August, 2017 presentation I gave at a panel for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

This work builds upon the concerns I articulated in this 2014 talk: “Toward a more perfect Union: The case for culturally responsive computational journalism

Toward a more perfect union: the case for culturally responsive computational journalism

The slides below are from a presentation I gave today as this semester’s Faculty Senate Colloquium lecturer at The College of New Jersey. To be chosen by one’s peers to deliver such a research talk is a singular honor. I am particularly grateful to my English department colleague, the distinguished scholar and pundit Cassandra Jackson, whose introduction made me sound like someone I’d like to meet.

Here is the presentation abstract:

I moved from industry into academia 25 years ago because I had come to an understanding that the “hollowing-out” and flattening, of corporate, political and cultural hierarchies would make the role of professional communicators more central to the effective functioning of businesses and communities. As the expansion of the Internet and online technologies upended the news and communication industries, I became increasingly engaged with understanding how professional communicators could adapt to these seismic changes. This ultimately led to my current research in the development of culturally responsive models for teaching and practicing computational journalism. In this talk, I will draw upon that research to articulate a vision for a culturally responsive journalism. I will argue that culturally responsive computational journalism is essential to realizing the constructive potential of the seismic changes that computer science has visited upon the news industry. Properly crafted and implemented, culturally responsive journalism could:

1. Create an inclusive epistemology of journalism that moves beyond naive empiricism and the current propagandistic journalism of assertion
2. Democratize access to media technologies by broadening participation in the development and deployment of civic media
3. Deepen and broaden critical user engagement with the news
4. Deepen and broaden civic engagement
Computing technology and networks afford almost everyone the opportunity to be a publisher, but they also reward those who are computationally fluent with superior access to the public square. For this reason, I envision a future in which broad application and refinement the pedagogical models being developed here and elsewhere can actually empower citizens and strengthen democracy.



Here are links to sources for the presentation:

“Newspaper Newsroom Workforce Continues to Drop.”  Pew Research Journalism Project. March 20, 2014

Broadband technology fact sheet.” Pew Research Internet Project.

Computer and Internet Use 1984-2012 US Census

Closing the Digital Divide: Latinos and Technology Adoption Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project

The State of Digital Divides. Pew Internet Research Project. Nov. 5,2013

The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind.” Jessica Goodman,  Mashable,  August 20, 2013

Yahoo Latest Tech Icon to Reveal Lack of Diversity.” Jessica Guynn, USA Today, August 15, 2014

Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers

CABECT research website

CABECT in a nutshell (flyer describing the project, with some preliminary data)


What’s the right hyperlocal news model for journalism education?

  1. Hyperlocal many not be what the big city newspaper’s business is, but it’s one important site where beginning reporters first learn their craft. How can the academy and industry work together to improve hyperlocal reporting and journalism education? Some questions for discussion below.

    What does the New York Times’ retreat say for student-professional partnerships?

    Nieman Reports identified five key lessons from the Times’ hyperlocal project, which teamed newspaper staffers with community contributors including New York University students working under the guidance of faculty mentors. The East Village Local is old-school shoe-leather reporting with a multimedia flourish. It’s labor-intensive stuff all the way around, and not very profitable.According to the article, the Times’ brass concluded that: while professional journalists’ involvement is important for quality control,  “It doesn’t pay big media companies to pay their staffs to go hyperlocal.” 

  2. “What we have been trying to figure out at the Times — and I think what lots of people in this space have been trying to figure out — is how do you prompt communities, and can you prompt communities into the act of covering themselves in a meaningful way?”  – Adrienne LaFrance, “Five Things the New York TImes Learned…

  3. Lisha Arino
    Sad to hear this. I learned a lot from my internship there last summer. 🙁
    Tue, Jun 26 2012 13:49:15
  4. What I’m hoping we’ll see soon are articles from the journalism professors and students involved in the East Village Local and other pro-am hyperlocal partnerships.  Technology makes new models of news reporting possible, even necessary. The question is, which models provide the best journalism, the most sustainable business mode
  5. Journatic: Bringing economies of scale to the newsroom at the expense of journalism, ethics

  6. Understandably, news organizations are like any business in that they want to produce as much salable content as possible at minimal cost – and that means minimal personnel expenditures. But that logic has led to the gutting of newsrooms and a retrenchment from the kind of reporting that relies on getting to know the members of a community and its issues.

    Enter Journatic, a company that bills itself as a “provider of extensive hyperlocal content.” According to its website, Journatic has an “efficient,”  “data-driven content creation model” that relies a distributed network of Filipino freelancers and low-paid American editors.  In an April, 2012 article,  Journatic CEO Brian Timpone reportedly told Chicago Reader reporter Mike Miner that the Filipino contributors are mostly data researchers, not reporters, but Miner cites a Journatic Philippine newspaper ad calling for writers who could turn out 250 events “stories” weekly for $.35 to $.40 each.   According to This American Life’s interview with Journatic staffer Ryan Smith, he spends much of his time editing the Filipino contributors’ stories based on information extracted from databases such as
    The Filipino writers’ work work is often published under fake English bylines. The Tribune Company, which is a major Journatic partner, now says it will investigate the use of fake bylines in content that Journatic produced for the Chicago Tribune. It’s also alleged that Journatic reporters tell sources that they are part of their clients’ news staffs, giving the false impression that they are local journalists.

    Smith says his pay is $10/hour without benefits. (According to, the company started paying benefits to full-time employees June 1 of this year.)

  7. Anna Tarkov pursued the story in more detail in this June 30 story for
  8. Not surprisingly, readers and listeners were disturbed by Journatic’ outsourced news model:
  9. DDpan
    “The foreign freelancers make as little as 35 cents per story item” via @Poynter
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 08:00:36
  10. Mandy Jenkins
    The Journatic story really fired me up, and I hope it’ll fire up local newsrooms who might someday have to compete with this sort of outsourced news operation. We need to show our readers that we live here, too.
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 10:18:25
  11. Eloise Davis
    Listening to “This American Life” and just amazed about one of the stories. It seems there’s a company called Journatics which handles outsourcing of hyper-local stories for some newspapers, like Newsday. They hire people to write local stories–people in the Philippines and elsewhere, (including some Americans who will work cheaply). So the local news is being written using cheap labor, while the local journalists are being fired. I guess even newspapers are exporting jobs! I wonder if that’s going to happen with the Tiimes-Picayune?
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 15:45:19
  12. The Chicago Tribune reacted as well:
  13. Medill Watchdog
    The Tribune is NOT amused by This American Life report on Journatic, that revealed fake bylines appearing in Tribune local edition:
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 09:52:01
  14. Cast down your buckets where you are, Journatic

    Journatic CEO Brian Timpone defends his business model by saying it’s cost effective. The Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner quotes Timpone making his case to This American Life:

    “We have a solution that helps solve the problem. Cutting staff is not the way to growth, but empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines—that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine, but at the end of the day, what’s a better solution? Do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea. I’m all ears.” 

    Here’s one for you, Mr. Timpone.

    It strikes me that Journatic would not have had to resort to anonymous or pseudonymous bylines if it had brought college journalism classes in on tasks like obituary writing, where the reporting is usually done over the phone.  From a journalism education perspective, there is a good conversation to be had about the economics of reporting, and the trade-off that occurs when you have a distributed news force.
    While I’m no fan of having students work for professional news sites for paltry sums – or worse, yet, for free, I understand the reality of the contemporary news economy, and course credit would at least be some compensation. Journatic would get reporters who can write in standard English. Students could get exposure to their content management system, and research could be done on more efficient ways to mine and organize their data.
    Of course, all of this is assuming that Journatic comes clean and stope with the stupid fake bylines. Now that the cat is out of the bag, com why can’t they identify themselves in the same way that a wire service might.  Also,  requiring student reporters to lie about who they are is a non-starter – why not just say, “I’m a contractor for the Houston Chronicle” or whatever the paper is?)
  15. DiligenceEngine
    @richards1000 re: Journatic, you heard of Narrative Science (algorithms write news articles)? Here’s a post on them
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 19:19:41
  16. Narrative science: The product of a journalism and computer science classroom collaboration

    One model of hyperlocal journalism seems to be prospering – and that scares a lot of journalists. Narrative Science is a company that uses artificial intelligence to program robots that generate news stories from spreadsheet data. The AI is based on input from journalists.  Their hyperlocal content draws on information such as parents’ youtube videos of their kids’ Little League games. They also produce basic financial stories for outlets such and Forbes. What is most interesting about this from my perspective is that it came about as a result of a class project by graduate journalism and computer science students at Northwestern University’s Medill school.
    Like anyone else, I have my qualms about the prospect of a robot one day cranking out Pulitzer-worthy scoops. But rather than shrink in horror, I think we need to examine these kinds of models more closely and think about ways of improving upon it and building upon it. For example, here are some areas of human and tech collaboration that would be helpful in meeting the information needs of underserved communities:
    1. Making environmental data intelligible and accessible to local communities
    2. Improving science and health reporting.
    3. Using robotics to realize the potential of news gaming
  17. DD: Narrative Science Creates Automated News Stories
    Thu, Apr 19 2012 17:26:22
  18. StartupsFormD
    $3M raised by Narrative Science Inc #vc #startup
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 13:51:24
  19. StylianosIordan
    Your Tweets Are Why The Next Walter Cronkite Will Be A Robot via @FastCompany
    Thu, Jun 28 2012 08:58:06
  20. Previews Narrative Science
    Thu, Feb 02 2012 10:52:23
  21. There are other interesting models for hyperlocal reporting – Philadelphia’s Newsworks is a great example. Spearheaded by public radio station WHYY and supported by foundations, Newsworks relies on contributions from the University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle College, among others. But that is another conversation.

On teaching game design in a journalism course, part 2

In my last post on the newsgames course I will be teaching this fall, I began to discuss how the need to respect the journalistic intent of a newsgame translates into requirements and constraints upon the game’s design and production. In this post, I want to  delve into that topic more deeply, using principles outlined in Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Designing Innovative Games, and applying those principles to a game that I consider particularly successful, MSNBC’s “Can You Spot the Threats?”  game about the challenges of screening airport baggage.  Finally, I will discuss questions that I will raise with my students about my partially finished “Food Stamps Game,” which I introduced in the last post. The intent of the Food Stamps Game is to simulate the experience of trying to buy a week’s worth of groceries on a $30 budget, about average in terms of what states allow a single adult participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which is the current name for Food Stamps. (Eligibility for benefits and benefit levels vary, and are based on complex criteria. See references on benefits at the end of this post.)

Fullerton defines a game as:

  • A closed formal system that
  • Engages players in structured conflict and
  • Resolves its uncertainty in unequal outcomse (p, 43)
MSNBC's game about airport baggage screening successfully incorporates dramatic and formal elements.

Here, an aside: It should be noted that Fullerton’s definition of a game is at slight variance with that employed by the authors of the other text that I plan to use in the course, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, which I discussed in the previous post. The Newgames text considers animated infographics as games, where as Fullerton is more restrictive. I bring this up because this is an interdisciplinary class in which some of the students are already familiar with Fullerton;s formulations. I may need to take these differing perspectives into account in order to build a common intellectual climate within the class.

Part of the value of Fullerton’s definition is that she breaks it down into components that can be understood as operational requirements.  Games have what Fullerton describes as formal elements (such as rules, playing pieces, boundaries and outcomes), dramatic elements (premise, setting, character and a dramatic arc), and system dynamics (the way the formal and dramatic elements interact). Please note that Fullerton’s definition of these categories is more extensive than I have presented here. This list is only  for the sake of illustration and discussion.

Applying Fullerton’s rubric to MSNBC’s “Can You Spot the Threats” game helps us to understand more about her categories, as well as the characteristics of a successful simulation-type game. The game starts with ominous music and a voiceover narration about the ways in which airport baggage screening procedures changed in the United States after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Then you are told that you are about to experience what it’s like to screen baggage for two minutes. A series of actual images of luggage generated by screening equipment scrolls across the screen, and you have to pick out the bags most likely to contain guns, knives or explosives. However, the pictures are frustratingly blurry and vague, as can be seen above. You can stop an image, zoom in, and change the black-and-white image to color, but the images are still non-descript. Take too long, and the passenger murmuring in the background rises to a fever pitch. Move too quickly, and it’s likely that something dangerous will slip through. At the end of two minutes, you get a score based on the number of bags screened, the number of dangerous bags detected, the number missed, and a score.

In Fullerton’s parlance, there are formal elements – rules, resources (the bags, the controls), boundaries (the time limit, for example) and outcomes. There is a real-world premise, a story in with characters (you, the baggage screener, and the passengers),  a setting, and a simple dramatic arc. The flash program functions efficiently, and the interface is clean.

“Can You Spot the Threats?” is one of the most effective newsgames I’ve seen, both When I had a class of about 24 students play this game in 2003, they said they gained a new appreciation for the difficulty of the baggage-screener’s job, and motivated them to read the accompanying web feature article. My campus is an hour’s train ride from Ground Zero, and the 9/11 attacks were still evoked a visceral emotional response from my students. They said they found it easy to accept the game’s premise, and they felt anxious as the blurry images rolled across the screen and passengers began to complain that they might miss their planes.

These are some of the ways in which the Food Stamps game is unfinished and needs revision.  As some test users report, the boundaries of the game aren’t always clear – for example, a script that should come up when a buyer runs out of money doesn’t yet work properly. There aren’t enough dramatic elements and the system dynamics could use some work. These will be some of the things that will be fodder for discussion with students in the fall.

Arguably, the flaws in this game, and the ability to download and remix the code in Scratch, makes the Food Stamps game useful as a tool for highlighting this game and its design process as an example of computational thinking. I will elaborate on that in the next post.


References on benefits. For more information on how states calculate Food Stamp benefits, please see examples below:

  1. USDA SNAP Eligibility page
  2. Texas: Food Stamp Benefit Estimator
  3. Illinois: DHS Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  4. MassLegal Services. 2011 Food Stamp Advocacy Guide Part III. Eligibility
  5. Hawaii Financial  and SNAP Benefits RIghts and Responsibilities
  6. Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services: Economic Stability Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  7. South Carolina Department of Social Services SNAP Benefit Calculator
  8. 2007 Congressional Food Stamp Challenge
  9. US Food Policy “Living on a Food Stamp Budget” (This is the specific source of my $30/week figure.

Course syllabus as of July 13, 2001