Digital Media Toolbox
Many major news stories begin their journey to public consciousness via social media. Witness the cellphone video shot by a bystander showing the killing of George Floyd and the videos of the Capitol insurgency of Jan. 6, 2021. With its vast and growing palette of digital tools, such open source intelligence has become a forensic art, applying to both journalism and criminal investigations.
On May 13, 2021, the British Antarctic Survey observed a massive chunk of ice breaking off Antarctica. A generation ago, journalists would have had very little specific information to write about such an event. But in this case, we almost knew immediately that the iceberg A-76 measured around 4,320 square kilometers (about 1,668 square miles) in size, making it the largest berg in the world at that point.
I’ve been posting fact-checking tools to Journalist’s Toolbox for more than a quarter of a century. Verification is at the core of what we do as journalists, and having good resources at our fingertips. Here are a few of my “quick-and-dirty” tools I’ve been using to fact-check stories, photos and video: The Google Fact Check Explorer tracks if a story has been fact-checked by an independent source.
A few years ago at a training at the University of Cincinnati, a participant asked me about sizing social media images. Her problem: How can the social media desk properly size an image to fit in a Facebook header, Twitter feed and Instagram in just a few minutes.
Google MyMaps is the perfect tool for mapping small datasets for dayturn stories and projects. Have a dataset of pothole repairs in your city? Map it. Tracking crime in certain neighborhoods? Load a spreadsheet from your police department into MyMaps. There are thousands of stories to be found in datasets on your city, county, state and federal data portals.
With the school year underway, let’s explore how to implement Journalist’s Toolbox into a classroom rather than focus on a single tool this month. College professors and high school journalism teachers have used the site for more than 25 years, mainly for research purposes.
Google purchased the Flourish graphics tool five years ago, and it has evolved into an excellent tool for creating animated charts, maps and other interactives using only a spreadsheet. The tool includes a paid account for developers to code and add watermarks, but the free version of Flourish meets most newsrooms’ needs.
There are many good smartphone video editing apps on the market, but for my work, the VN video editing app for iPhone and Android gets the job done better than any other tool based on ease of use and powerful controls.
If you need to visualize U.S. Census data, unemployment statistics or other datasets quick and with no spreadsheets or coding, give the Google Public Data Explorer a try. The Data Explorer is linked into several official databases, including the census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Eurostat, the Inter-American Development Bank, World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.
There are many ways to visualize data from the U.S. Census. Next month, we’ll explore chart-making software to visualize demographic data. But this month we’ll explore how to visualize physical change with Google Earth Engine Timelapse. Earth Engine is a project organized by Google, Carnegie Mellon, the US Geological Survey and NASA.
Government websites love to bury data in tables on web pages. Why? It satisfies legal requirements for making document public under sunshine laws, but it renders the data useless. You can’t sort or filter the data to look for trends, do math calculations to find rates and averages, and other things journalists need to find stories.
Reporters hate transcribing notes and they often ask me during newsroom training what tools work best. They want speed and accuracy with the transcriptions, and they want it free (or very cheap). I’ve listed many tools on the Toolbox’s Transcription Tools page, but here are my three favorites for speed, use and cost: Otter.ai:
Editor’s note: This is the first of what will be monthly posts about how to use digital and data tools on Journalist’s Toolbox. Check back each month for new tools, tips and tricks. Google launched its Dataset Search tool in November 2018 to help researchers locate data that is freely available for use.
Victor Hernandez preaches the gospel of newsroom productivity, whether he’s working with his reporters in the Crosscut newsroom in Seattle or training journalists at conferences around the country. Hernandez’s philosophy is simple: Think trends and not tools when finding digital resources that can make you more productive.
In June, the New York Times Magazine published a 10,000-word article by Nikole Hannah-Jones about segregated schools in New York City. Those who read the article online or on mobile devices may have noticed a subtle multimedia element buried halfway through the content: a graphic showing the shifting school zones for two Brooklyn schools.
In today’s digital-first news industry, priorities have turned to clicks and “attention minutes” and whatever the next big metric will be. But in all these analytics, how are we measuring readers’ understanding of news? Where is the metric showing that what we’re reporting is actually resonating with readers?
The English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that the pen is mightier than the sword. For journalism in the digital age, it’s Twitter that has become mighty. Once known for its unique way to connect with celebrities and friends through bite-size 140-character posts, Twitter has become a tool central to the idea of speech and expression, and one of journalism’s essential social media tools.
More and more government data is becoming available online, but the keys to unlocking stories belong to those who are willing to get their hands a little dirty in a spreadsheet program. Several states and cities have started publishing data sets online, publicly available to anyone for review and download.
Travel journalists who want to cover foreign countries and produce compelling multimedia for visitors face challenges such as language barriers, unknown customs and unfamiliar geographies. Besides having a passion for exploring exotic locales, meeting the inhabitants and discovering unique facets to share with visitors, travel journalists need a solid understanding of how best to capture the essence of the place for their audience, especially in the digital era.
Technology and journalism are becoming more than just intertwined; they are informing one another’s development at an exponential rate. As journalism experiences one of its most transformative stages in history, reliable newsgathering and comprehensive storytelling require more than just observant eyes, savvy wordsmithing and a well-positioned camera.
Many journalists seem to have a love/hate relationship with infographics. On one hand, snazzy graphics replacing good old-fashioned word-smithing rubs a lot of us the wrong way. Sometimes the drive to produce clever imagery can even result in the distortion of data, perhaps going so far as to mislead readers.
There is a menace in digital journalism and, unfortunately, it is not going away any time soon no matter how cleverly a medium thinks it is hiding the violation. This menace is called “lifting” online content of an entire article — verbatim — into another print or online publication without the reporter’s permission.
As digital journalists, we’re used to operating within the ever-evolving sphere of cyberspace. We’re continually forced to expand our arsenal of storytelling resources just to keep up with the influx of information and the lightning speed of the Web. Meanwhile, some of the most essential parts of our industry — engaging with, learning from and sharing our work with others in our field — often get overlooked as we hurry to install the slickest apps or snag the latest gadgets.
More people are watching news videos online, Pew Research data suggests. But fewer people make it past the one-minute mark. We can debate all day whether shortening news to fit 140-characters or 15 seconds is helping or hurting journalism and attention spans.
Ecclesiastes put it this way: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” I recall the Old Testament curmudgeon every time I come across another pundit proclaiming how journalism schools must teach every student “data-based journalism,” how to wrangle “big data,” and how to create “data visualizations” and “code.”
Being a gadget freak isn’t a requirement for being a journalist, but these days it helps to have some familiarity with the plethora of new stuff constantly being pushed into the consumer pipeline. While journalists learn to embrace new tech as part of their jobs, news audiences have also benefitted from the march of progress.
I was recently interviewed by a college student doing research on the “censorship” of comments by news organizations. From the idealistic tone of her inquiry, she revealed that she thought newsrooms hiring a staffer just to manage comments was an outrageous affront to the First Amendment.
I was appalled recently to hear a city editor from one of the top daily newspapers in the country tell a roomful of journalism students that they shouldn’t worry about learning multimedia or any digital skills, and that journalism to him was all about one thing: writing.
I’ve heard it for years from mid-career journalists, though not so much from the j-school students I work with today: “How am I supposed to keep up with all this new stuff?” That was when now-commonplace concepts such as blogging, social media and SEO were bewilderingly new to the established news media.
Hey, can you make me a free video? Gather a room full of student media advisors together and sooner or later the topic of “value” comes up. From what we teach to how we teach it, it seems many inside and outside of education do not consider media a discipline equal to similar pedagogies with practical experience like music, nursing, education and social work, just to name a few.
Barbara Selvin, a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York, posted some interesting thoughts on her jrnteaching.com blog, saying “Newspapers should jettison (most of) their Web video efforts.” Ouch! This cuts a former (reformed?) broadcaster turned digital media journalism instructor deep.
Steve Buttry — who has the impressive if murky title of “digital transformation editor” for Digital First Media, which operates the combined properties of the Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group — spends a lot of his time speaking to full-time journalists and students.