The Rise of Hands-On Journalism

Digital journalism has made possible some incredible storytelling in recent years. Visually stunning reports on issues as diverse as gun violence, environmental disasters, and surveillance have brought stories to life on the screen. Increasingly, however, journalists are experimenting with innovations that move journalism off the screen and into people’s hands.

This spring RadioLab did a story about an ancient skull and the questions it helped answer about the origins of human history. It is a fascinating story, but it revolved around minute details scientists discovered in the skull, details a radio audience couldn’t see. So the RadioLab team took a scan of the skull, printed it out with a 3D printer, and made the scan available online for others to print out. So, now you could hypothetically feel the groves and markings on the skull as the scientists discuss them, discovering new facets of the skull alongside the narrators.

I am fascinated by the potential for these sorts of journalism-objects to help engage communities around stories and foster empathy with audiences. So I began collecting examples of what I call, “hands on journalism.”

I see this hands-on journalism as a particular kind of community engagement, one that may involve collaboration with community, but puts an emphasis on discovery and learning. Specifically the kind of learning that comes from doing. Continue reading

Thirteen Questions About the Future of Participatory Journalism

At this year’s Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications conference I moderated a panel on legal, educational and practical debates about participatory journalism and citizen reporting. I had the good fortune to be joined by a terrific group of scholars and activists: Amanda Hickman of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Lisa Lynch of Concordia University, Madeleine Bair of Witness.org and Morgan Weiland of Stanford University.

I posted a preview of the discussion before the panel. But the panel itself was a lively and engaged debate where a number of important new issues were debated. Below are recordings of the panel’s opening remarks. You can listen to the entire half hour on Soundcloud, but below I’ve split it up into short three and four minute clips, highlighting a few key themes that emerged. Continue reading

Finding a Better Way to Track Journalist Arrests in the United States

I spent a large part of 2011 and 2012 compiling a day by day detailed report of journalists who had been arrested at Occupy protests. In each case, I tried to track down multiple sources for confirmation, sought to detail the circumstances and capture a bit of the story of how the arrest happen, and then from there track what happened to the journalist in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time I launched a series of campaigns with Free Press, calling for cities across the United States to drop charges against journalists and defend First Amendment protections for journalists covering protests.

So when three journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of August people began sending me tips. I was away from my computer and couldn’t track the breaking news as well as I would have liked, but thankfully as the week went on – and more reports of journalist arrests and press suppression poured in – others took up the charge and helped track these issues.

At the time of writing there are three lists tracking attacks on the press in and around Ferguson, Missouri. Each is taking a somewhat different approach and reports a different total number depending their definition of who is a journalist.

There is an important debate to be had here about who gets counted in these sorts of efforts, and who gets left out. I’ll save that debate for another post, but if you are interested I suggest reading this and this as a starting place.

After a year of tracking, I began to run up against the limitations of a tool like Storify for long-term on-going coverage. Even the lists above, with social media embedded in them, begin to get a bit long and unwieldy, after just a week or two.

Continue reading

From Washington to Ferguson and Back Again in a Night

I was on a family vacation in Washington, DC, last week on August 14. It was a lovely summer evening and on a whim my wife and I took our two young sons down to the Lincoln Memorial at sunset.

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As the last light of day lit up the sky around the monument I walked up the steps and heard a chorus of people reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The group of high school students knelt on the spot where Dr. King stood, pointing to the inscription there, and breathing new life into his words.

Half a nation away in Ferguson, Missouri, a different sound filled the night air. Just a few days earlier a young unarmed black teenager, not much older than those who stood before me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was killed by police. And on this night, protesters calling for justice met militarized police who were prepared for a fight.  Continue reading

Journalism’s Theory of Change

(Originally published at the LocalNewsLab)

In July we learned more about Jim Brady’s new local journalism start-up, Brother.ly, which is taking a networked approach to news in Philly. At USA Today Rem Rieder described the project as having a “strong civic impulse.”

For Brady and Chris Krewson, the site’s editor, community is the starting place. At theInnovate Local conference at Montclair State University earlier this year Brady said that increasingly he wants to effect “our communities through action not just providing information” and he describes Brother.ly not as a news site but as “a platform for a better Philly.”

At one time, this overt emphasis on civic action would have raised red flags for many journalists. But increasingly we are seeing some newsrooms frame their work as a springboard for action. There is evidence of this shift in both nonprofit and commercial newsrooms, as well as a growing number of journalism schools which are explicitly training more community driven and action oriented students.

Screenshot 2014-07-28 14.07.49The Christian Science Monitorjust redesigned their site with a major focus on helping people take action. The site features a “Take Action” section and on some stories the Christian Science Monitor offers “paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world.” My colleague Molly de Aguiar recently profiled Christian Science Monitor and two other publications that are using site design to invite more user engagement.

Also this month, the Knight Foundation awarded a Prototype Fund grant to Chicago’s Public Good Software for the development of a “Do Public Good” button and an outreach campaign designed to “work with bloggers and media organizations to include a capability to take action (‘Do Public Good’) in the context of news articles.” Continue reading

Debating Participatory Journalism: Newsrooms, Campuses, Courts and Congress

This week I’ll be at the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC) moderating a panel with some of my favorite people, on one of my favorite topics. (Click here to jump to the links and resources section)

The session is called, “Media Policy and Participatory Journalism: Teaching, Engaging and Protecting Acts of Journalism” (scheduled for Thursday at 11:45, location TBD) and will focus on big legal and ethical questions that are raised as more and more people are taking up the tools of journalism and covering the news in their communities and around the globe.

How do we understand press freedom when anyone can carry a press in their pocket? How are state and federal laws shaping people’s ability to participate in newsgathering? How are journalism schools welcoming more community participation and preparing journalists for that kind of engagement?

The session is based in part on my research paper from last year on acts of journalism and press freedom debates emerging in the digital age. However, the session also resonates with the work I am doing now around developing and supporting new local news networks which are deeply participatory, engaged with their communities and sustainable.

Continue reading

Defining Civic Action Beyond Institutions in Journalism and Politics

A few common themes have long animated my work in education, conservation and journalism. Collaborating with a range of national and local organizations across these sectors I focused on building community, mobilizing civic action, collaborative problem-solving, fostering new networks and grappling with institutions in moments of profound flux and change. As such, I’m keenly interested in how people engage with their communities and their government, and how those actions are facilitated or hindered by institutions in media, education and the nonprofit sector.

I’ve written before about these dynamics, and the tensions between networks and institutions in news and civic life. We are at a moment when many of the institutions of civic action and information, from advocacy groups to journalism organizations, are re-imagining themselves as networks. The Columbia University report on “post-industrial journalism” is one of the clearest descriptions of this moment. But the corporate and government institutions that are so often the targets of civic action are in many ways growing stronger and more monolithic. C.W. Anderson puts it this way “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.”

One problem with institutional models is that they tend to define the norms of acceptable (or “real”) action. In politics, this is why voting and other electoral organizing is held up as most meaningful and legitimate. In news, this is part of the reason citizen journalism and blogging has long been treated as something less than traditional reporting. That is in part how institutions preserve themselves. And that preservation has both costs and benefits, as I’ve explored in the case of disaster and crisis response.

All of this is why I was so interested in the Twitter chat I have embedded below, in which Jonathan Stray, Anthea Watson Strong and Ted Han debate the intersection of legitimate civic action and the role of institutions. How do we understand the differences between community action and civic action? When do we need organizational action versus individual action? Can diffuse networks circumvent, replace or take on powerful systems? Continue reading

Video: Journalism Sustainability and Community Engagement

About one month ago I took the wraps off of the new project I had been developing with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We called it “The Local News Lab” because we wanted to emphasize the sense of experimentation that animates much of the project. We are working with six local news sites in New Jersey and New York City to test new revenue models, new strategies for community engagement, and new collaborative projects to strengthen the journalism ecosystem.

The project is not only an experiment in supporting and expanding local journalism, but also an effort test new ideas in media funding and philanthropy. At Dodge we are testing how a place-based foundation can strengthen the infrastructure for local journalism in a way that encourages long-term sustainability and deep civic engagement. While Dodge does fund non-commercial journalism, this project focuses on mentoring six commercial news start-ups and helping build tools and resources that serve all journalists and newsrooms. We describe this as an ecosystem approach.

I wanted to come work at the Dodge Foundation because I was really excited about the approach they were taking, investing in networks and infrastructure and putting community and civic engagement at the center of their work. In the video below, an interview with Dan Kennedy, I talk more about the details of the project and how we will measure success. Continue reading

Why the SCOTUS Cellphone Decision is a Win for Press Freedom

According to the Supreme Court, police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest. The unanimous decision, which was handed down this week, is being heralded as a major victory for privacy rights and a landmark case with implications far beyond cellphones.

The New York Times reports, “The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.”

Many of the most important debates surrounding press freedom and privacy right now focus on how our fundamental freedoms, so long expressed and protected in the physical world, will translate to the digital age. The decision this week is an important recognition that advances in our technology shouldn’t result in erosions of our liberty.

Right to Record

I know a number of reporters and citizen journalists whose cellphones have been searched, and who have even had footage or photos erased. In 2012 I was part of a team at Free Press who launched a campaign fighting for people’s right-to-record, a shorthand we used to talk about both people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights to use their cellphones to gather and disseminate news. In a letter to the Justice Department that year, a diverse range of press freedom and digital rights groups wrote, “The right to record is an essential component of our rights at a time when so many of those witnessing public protests carry networked, camera-ready devices such as smartphones.”

Not long after that letter, the Justice Department released a set of guidelines for police departments reasserting the right to record as a First Amendment protected activity. Those guidelines cited the case of Simon Glik, who was arrested for recording police activity with his cellphone. First circuit Judge Kermit Lipez ruled in Glik’s favor, highlighting how mobile phones have fundamentally changed news-gathering:

[C]hanges in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw… Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.

While this week’s decision focuses on the Fourth Amendment, not the First, it also has clear implications for freedom of the press. Continue reading

John Oliver on Journalism and Comedy

John Oliver was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross this week, and it was a terrific interview. The first twenty minutes or so focused on the way Oliver uses satire to draw attention to complex, under-reported issues. Gross used Oliver’s amazing Net Neutrality clip as fodder, discussing how his call to action brought down the Federal Communication’s Commission website.

During that clip he takes a dig at Sting, to which Gross asks, what if Oliver and Sting find themselves at the same party some day? Oliver’s response became the headline for NPR’s coverage of the interview (“John Oliver Is No One’s Friend On His New HBO Show“), but what I found fascinating was how he shifts from talking about the role of comedians to discussing the role of journalists. Here is the roughly 60 seconds of audio:

Here is the transcript:

Continue reading

Fighting for Access: New Report on the State of Media Credentialing Practices in the United States

At the end of May, fifteen leading journalism organizations signed on to a letter calling for SCOTUSblog to be granted press credentials to cover the Supreme Court. A month earlier, not only was SCOTUSblog’s application for credential’s denied, but the committee who oversees press passes refused to renew Lyle Denniston’s credentials, even though he is a veteran Supreme Court reporter who worked for WBUR and wrote for SCOTUSblog.

A new report from the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Journalist’s Resource project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy puts the SCOTUSblog fight in a national perspective. What is happening to SCOTUSblog in Washington, DC, is happening to journalists around the country. As the landscape of news is changing, laws and guidelines that dictate who can get a press pass are causing problems and, at times, blocking access to important new journalism organizations and individuals.

In many cases, these challenges are arising in places where freelancers and new newsrooms are trying to cover old institutions, like courts and statehouses, places where journalistic capacity has been dwindling. Continue reading

The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy and Control

Last week the Tow Center at Columbia University held its first research conference, Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation, where it released three major new reports on Data Journalism, User Generated Content and Sensors. All three reports are important additions to the conversation about technology, reporting and ethics, with some useful and at times provocative recommendations.

I contributed an essay to the report on Sensors and Journalism. The project was led by Fergus Pitt, whose research and case studies make up the bulk of the 200+ page book. But joining me in contributing essays were great scholars, lawyers and journalists whose work adds hugely to this emerging field.

My essay focused on the ethical considerations that arise as journalists engage their communities through the use of sensors. The piece looks at questions around the shifting nature of public and private information, and new privacy concerns that journalists have to contend with in the age of big data. I looked at how the use of sensors intersect with historic issues of discrimination, power and surveillance and describe concrete steps newsrooms can take to engage communities openly and honestly around these issues.   Continue reading

On Memorial Day, An Old Briefcase Reveals a Remarkable History

Roughly fifteen years ago I found a nondescript briefcase in the basement of my mom’s house with a sticker just under the handle that read, “My War.” 

Inside the briefcase was an amazingly well-preserved archive of letters, military paperwork, newspaper clipping, sketches and photos from my grandfather’s service in World War II. At the time, I spent months pouring over the collection, and carefully scanned in every page. 

My grandfather, Al Atkins, was shot down over Germany in November of 1944. He was able to parachute to safety before being taken as a prisoner of war. The collection of his military papers includes the original Western Union telegrams his wife received when his plane was shot down and when he was confirmed as a prisoner of war. Those two are dated three months apart.

Imagine what his family must have felt during those three months. The immense weight of the unknown.  Continue reading

Poem: I Circle Around but the Sky Changes

For National Poetry Month in April, Orion Magazine hosted a poetry exchange inspired by a collaboration between poets Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. The theme was “This Growing Season.” Orion put out a call for anyone who was interested and then matched people up randomly.

I was paired with Anastasia Andersen, who teaches poetry at the University of New Mexico (her full bio is below). Here is how she described the challenge we set forth for our poetry exchange:

We chose a writing game based on those of the French Surrealists. We agreed upon number of stanzas (6) and lines per stanza (5).  We also alternated writing stanzas, but only forwarded the final line, which would inform the next stanza. The “missing” lines of the stanzas were revealed after all 6 stanzas had been written.  We also chose a line from a poem by Robert Desnos as a title “I Circle Around but the Sky Changes.”

All we had was a shared theme and the last lines of each other’s stanzas and yet, the results were remarkably connected, with common themes interwoven throughout both our writing.

Here is the poem: Continue reading

The FCC’s Public Problem

Yesterday, Gigi Sohn, a senior advisor and legal counsel for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, took to Twitter for an extended Q&A with the public. And remarkably, by most accounts, the discussion was actually useful.

The Twitter chat was prompted by the enormous public outcry in recent weeks regarding Chairman Wheeler’s plans to implement a “pay for play” system on the Internet. That push back from the public has now forced Wheeler to revise his proposal, which would have dismantled the idea of net neutrality and undermined the level playing field of the Internet  (but even this rewrite may not solve the problem). As I have written before, this is particularly troubling in terms of people’s access to news, information and a diversity of voices and viewpoints online.

Sohn should be commended for her willingness to listen and talk honestly about these important issues, but it may have been too little too late.

In the past week more than 50 artists and entertainers have joined 50 investors, 10 senators and huge coalitions of public interest groups and tech companies in blasting Wheeler’s proposal. In a rare move, two of Wheeler’s democratic colleagues on the Commission released statements acknowledging their concerns.

This reversal is just the most recent in a long line of policy moves where the FCC has been caught off guard by public protest and broad-based pressure. For an agency that was established, in part, to protect the public interest, it has an enormous problem with the public. Continue reading