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By RHIANNA JACKSON-KELSO
Special to the RJRC

April 9, 2018

Data journalists are rethinking how they present data-driven stories as it becomes clear that readers won’t spend time clicking through interactive visualizations, says Roberto Rocha, a CBC data journalist and educator specializing in data-driven reporting.

Rocha, who has worked on stories ranging from a Montreal street history map to a ranking of psychedelic drugs, says data journalists must accept that readers have a limited amount of patience for sorting through data.

“Readers are lazy,” Rocha said during a Mar. 27 webinar hosted by Geothink, a Canadian geospatial open data research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “They don’t want to work to get information. Basically, they just want to scroll.”

Rocha said the early tendency of data journalists to throw every scrap of data at readers and hope that they would explore the material has proven ineffective. Most readers simply won’t spend hours, or even a few minutes, exploring interactive websites overloaded with datasets, said Rocha, who characterized the practice as “an abdication of the journalist’s role.”

More recently, he said, data journalists have been returning to the basics, which include filtering information, uncovering the main story, and telling that story in an engaging way: “There’s a major shift that’s happening in data journalism that started a few years ago where [the way data journalists perceive themselves] has shifted from simply organizing data … to more of an active storyteller role.”

This new, more user-friendly approach is evident, Rocha said, in the New York Times’ March 19 use of an animated graph to visualize rates at which white and black men who grew up in rich families remain affluent or fall into poverty. Another example, a timeline visualizing 311 calls New Yorkers made relating to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy from the fall of 2012 to now, uses scrolling to drive home the long-reaching effects of hurricane recovery.

“Interactivity is not a panacea for engagement,” says Rocha, noting that if readers must search for information, they are more likely to lose interest in the story.

Analytics have played an important role in reshaping the story-telling approach used for data journalism projects. Rocha said data gathered by the New York Times to measure reader engagement with its interactive visualizations – which are costly and time consuming to produce – revealed an engagement rate of just 15 per cent.

In response to these findings, the Times refined its approach to minimize the work required of readers and place more responsibility on the shoulders of the journalists. The new direction was summarized in a set of three “rules for visual storytelling” in a talk given by Archie Tse, deputy graphics editor for the Times:

  1. If you make the reader click or do anything other than scroll, something spectacular has to happen.
  2. If you make a tooltip or rollover, assume no one will ever see it. If content is important for readers to see, don’t hide it.
  3. When deciding whether to make something interactive, remember that getting it to work on all platforms is expensive.

Although efforts by data journalists to more effective in their story-telling approaches, panelist April Lindgren pointed out that many journalists still need to learn the basics of data-driven journalism.

“The capacity of local new organizations to mine … data for stories is really lagging behind the growing availability of data sources,” said Lindgren, the academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre,. Most local journalists lack the skills required to collect data and pull stories from it, she said, and recent graduates who do possess these skills often find themselves overwhelmed with the workload once they are installed in local newsrooms.

Lindgren said more collaboration between newsrooms might be one solution to this problem and pointed to a recent project by fellow presenter Zane Schwartz to illustrate her point. Schwartz, an investigative journalist for National Post and Macleans, spent his section of the webinar discussing the political donations database he compiled using more than six million records gathered from every province and territory. Though Schwartz noted only a handful of people had downloaded the full dataset, Lindgren says the production and sharing of such databases could be one way to address the problems faced by local news organizations that lack the staff, skills, and time to explore data-driven journalism.

“Local journalists could go [into these databases], take the data, and make it relevant to their local audiences and do that work for the people who live in their communities,” says Lindgren. “I’m hoping … that more local journalists will see what [Schwartz] has done and recognize what a gift it is in terms of a story in hand.”

She pointed to collaborative data journalism models launched in the United Kingdom as possible models for Canada. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit, part of its broader Local News Partnerships Program, pairs experienced BBC data journalists with reporters from the local news industry to educate them about working with and reporting on data. Similarly, The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, aims to work with British local media to use datasets to write local stories.

Recreating these types of initiatives in Canada, says Lindgren, could be critical to improving the state of Canadian local journalism. And the data suggests these improvements are necessary—findings from the Local News Research Project, which Lindgren co-founded, show that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008.

Feb. 28, 2018

By STEFANIE PHILLIPS
Special to the RJRC
First published on RSJ website

Carol Addresses journalism students inside the Sears Atrium at Ryerson University. Photo: Stefanie Phillips

After the cameras are turned off and the notebooks are put away, journalists often drive away from their sources without thinking about the consequences that arise in the dust of their tires. But Carol Off, host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens, says it’s time journalists started thinking about what they leave behind.

In her delivery of the 2018 Atkinson Lecture on Feb. 14, Off told a room full of journalism students to acknowledge their presence has an effect on their sources and to consider how that presence can have ramifications for those people.

“As soon as we arrive at an event we are covering we have altered its course,” she said from the podium in the Sears Atrium in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. “Even if you are a fly on the wall you have left fly spots, one way or another, and we are not flies we are bulldozers; we have impact.”

As a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering Canadian and international affairs, including conflicts in the Middle East, Haiti and the Balkans, Off was able to share her wisdom with the crowd.

She said protecting sources from harm should be a priority for journalists, especially young people who would rationally defy authority by speaking out. She said journalists can protect them by being honest about their intentions, warning them of possible consequences and guarding their privacy when necessary. Sometimes, she said, it even means leaving some of the information out of the published story.

“Without sources, we would have no journalists,” she said. “They want to have a voice and we want to tell their story to provide an outlet for that voice.”

Off also talked about her relationship with the family of Asad Aryubwal, the Afghan man at the centre of her new book, All We Leave Behind, with whom Off cultivated a more personal friendship. When Aryubwal became a key source in Off’s coverage of the country’s warlords, his family was sent into exile, uncertain of their future.

Feeling responsible for their hardship, Off decided to cross the line from being a disinterested journalist to a friend, becoming a key player in his family’s removal from Afghanistan and entry to Canada.

“Ironically the consequences of my contact with him led to my decision to get more involved because I was already involved. I had been involved since the moment we met,” she said.

Off said it can be hard to decide when to cross that line, but for her the answer was clear.

“I had a moral obligation beyond my role as a reporter.”

First-year journalism student, Chloe Cook, said hearing from Off will make her more aware of the questions she asks her sources in future reporting.

“I’ll be able to be more critical of what I’m writing instead of just not really thinking about it and slapping things together,” she said after the lecture.

Fellow journalism student, Samantha Moya, 22, said the lecture sparked a lot of “confusion” because it made her realize how her biases can be tightly woven into her reporting.

“Because of where I stand in this world as a person there are so many injustices that I see and if my biases can’t be a thing that affects my reporting, how can I do this job?”

Off gave students some advice, telling them to remember they are human beings first and reporters second.

“We shouldn’t convince ourselves we are God’s gift,” she said. “Never forget your personal obligations.”

A video of the lecture is available here.

Feb. 21, 2018

By RHIANNA JACKSON-KELSO
Special to the RJRC

Panelist Ing Wong-Ward, who is a producer with CBC and associate director of the Centre for Independent Living Toronto, answers a questions from panel moderator Chris O’Brien. (Rhianna Jackson-Kelso)

News coverage of people with disabilities tends to rely on tired clichés that present them as “tragic but brave,” the “supercrip” or the “object of charity,” says a leading disability activist.

Ing Wong-Ward, associate director of Toronto’s Centre for Independent Living, urged able-bodied journalists to abandon the practice of writing “inspiration porn,” a term coined during a 2012 TED Talk by the late disability rights activist Stella Young. Inspiration porn presents people with visible disabilities as being heartwarming or motivational simply for existing. The results, Wong-Ward said during a Feb. 5 discussion at the Ryerson School of Journalism, are stories that are less than newsworthy.

“This whole notion of ‘heartwarming’ – why is it people with disabilities are somehow more heartwarming than others?” asked Wong-Ward, a former CBC producer who was born with spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair. “It’s a little harder for me to get out of bed than a lot of people, but that’s not an achievement.”

The panel discussion about how journalists can produce better stories about disability was organized by the ReelAbilities Toronto Film Festival, the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, and Access Ryerson. It was live-streamed (see below) and featured a live transcription to increase viewing accessibility.

An overall theme of the discussion was that that able-bodied journalists know far too little about covering people with disabilities. Journalism education is partly responsible, said panelist Keren Henderson, an assistant professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, N.Y. She said most journalism professors no longer work in the industry and need to catch up with evolving norms.

“[Journalism education] is still quite segregated,” Henderson said when asked about how disability and intersectionality—the theory of how different types of discrimination interact and overlap—are addressed in journalism schools. “We have lists of style guides for different identities, and I don’t see a lot of intersectionality between them in the education system.”

Panelist David M. Perry, a columnist at Pacific Standard Magazine, said continuous updating and education are essential for journalists who write stories about disability: “There are no perfect words,” he said. “Whatever norms we’re learning today will be different in 20 years, and that’s okay.”

Wong-Ward said journalists have no excuse for being uneducated about the topic: “It’s a matter of Googling,” she said. “There’s a little bit of shyness sometimes, particularly in Canada, with disability organizations and media. […] The onus is on journalists to get out there and speak to people with disabilities.”

Perry echoed this sentiment, pointing to the lack of direct quotations from the people most directly affected as a major issue in news coverage. In a sample of 107 news stories about the murder of people with disabilities, Perry said, he found zero quotes from people with the disability.

“The number one thing we can do is diversify our newsrooms and our writers,” Perry said. “But maybe the number two thing—and I’m talking to the students here in particular—if you as a journalist are writing about disability, you should quote people with disabilities.”

Wong-Ward said journalists’ overreliance on expert opinions is one reason people with disabilities are too often excluded from their own narratives.

“If somebody kills their disabled child, [journalists] go to a psychiatrist or a lawyer… without actually talking to people who live with a specific disability,” she said. “By doing that, you end up objectifying people by not including them, and that’s a fundamental problem.

“Can you imagine [writing about] the [Bruce McArthur] murder cases here in Toronto and not talking to gay people?” she added. “Everybody would be up in arms, but somehow it’s acceptable with disability.”

The panelists suggested a variety of strategies for improving coverage. Perry urged journalists to be “a little subversive in your reporting… Instead of emphasizing the ways in which that wheelchair user is unable to do something because their legs don’t work, emphasize the lack of a ramp.”

Wong-Ward encouraged young reporters to think about improving coverage by increasing diversity among reporting staff and the types of stories they produce.

“If [the heartwarming story] is all you’re showing, that’s a problem,” said Wong-Ward.

“Mistakes are made in newsrooms all the time,” she added, and budding journalists should be willing to point out these mistakes when they see them.

“One day you will be in a position of power… Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

(Recording of panel with subtitles to be posted soon)

Feb. 12, 2018

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

CBC journalist and As It Happens host Carol Off will explore the relationship between reporters and sources when she delivers the annual Atkinson lecture at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism on Feb. 14.

During the public lecture Off will draw upon her new book All We Leave Behind, which documents her experience interviewing Asad Aryubwal in Afghanistan about his country’s notorious warlords. She was forced to rethink the professional barriers between journalists and sources when the warlords sent death squads to kill Aryubwal for speaking out. He and he and his family had to flee for their lives. Nearly a decade later, with Off’s help, they finally found refuge in Canada.

“Professional barriers between journalists and sources are being challenged,” said Janice Neil, the chair of the RSJ. “Now there is more transparency and the journalistic process is becoming a lot more visible to sources and people outside of journalism than it was before.”

The Atkinson lecture, made possible by an Atkinson Charitable Foundation endowment in honour of former Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, traditionally draws both members of the public and the journalism community. Last year’s lecturer was Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman who discussed issues related to fake news and trust in the news media. Former journalist Dr. Marie Wilson has spoken about news coverage of Indigenous issues from her perspective as one of the three commissioners on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Toronto Star reporter and author Michelle Shephard lectured on journalism and national security reporting, while Toronto Sun editorial cartoonist Susan Dewar discussed freedom of expression and editorial cartooning in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

“When you look at the range of speakers and the topics discussed,” Neil said,” the relationship between sources and journalists certainly falls within the Atkinson lecture’s focus on social justice issues.”

Off’s willingness to write about her decision to set aside the traditional role of reporters as disinterested observers is important for journalists to understand, Neil said.

“I hope students come away with an understanding of how things are not necessarily black and white,” Neil said. They will hopefully leave with an appreciation of how big these questions are, how deeply they need to be thought about and (how) the answers may be different from what you have always expected.”

The lecture will take place on Feb. 14 at 10 a.m. in the Sears Atrium inside the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at Ryerson University. It can also be watched live by clicking here. There will be a reception following the lecture.