Fugitive Take Down Day

The NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh today is running a “Fugitive Take Down”  day in cooperation with the Allegheny County Sheriff’s office. It’s coupled with a Twitter campaign that uses the hashtag #TakeDownDay to accompany photos of the fugitives, the crime they have been accused of, and their last known location.

I was bothered by this when I first saw it in the early morning hours before I went to bed. I’m bothered even more by it now. The violent imagery associated with the words “take down” seem over the top for any media associate to advocate. While the message only encourages audience members to report tips by phone or online form, the words “take down” seem to advocate actions. While it’s commonplace for organizations to feature fugitives, ask the public to be on the lookout for someone a law enforcement agency wants to get off the streets, or call with tips about a specific crime, these incidents are an immediate public safety issue that fills part of the news media’s mission in society by providing timely and specific information. But, this hashtag, the posting of some fugitives’ faces with the words “captured over them,” and asking the public to participate in a day long event that doesn’t provide context to each situation, and posting videos of arrests almost like a game (there is a computer game with the same name), feels wrong and irresponsible.

Capturing fugitives is not a game, and using words associated with violent imagery to get the public involved is not OK.


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Moving back in with our Twitter parents

It seems that after years of independence — discovering new friends, upending the system, and asserting our non-traditional values — we’re ready to move back in with our parents.

Twitter, which has mostly avoided the algorithm in favor of a reverse chronological stream of information, hinted that all users will get a curated list of tweets in the future. Currently, users who aren’t logged in get a version, and those who are logged in see Highlights. The next day Evan Williams argued that the data volume has exploded since Twitter’s founding that users need information organized by algorithm for sanity.

So, I guess it turns out that after years of celebrating Twitter for it’s democratization of information, we’re asking for rules, order and boundaries. By asking Twitter to use tools to choose which tweets we see — even if these selections are made by carefully formulated computer programs — audiences are abandoning some of the opportunity to make choices about what’s important to know in this world. They’re asking for editors to choose what’s on A1. We’re willing to put the gatekeeping power back in the hands of institutions and selected elites. The powerful this time around won’t be the local newspaper; it’s going to be organizations that hold the power of algorithms.

Facebook is already seen as a gatekeeper for its computer-automated decisions about what information appears at the top of your newsfeed. Part of what motivates those decisions is profit. This was true too for old media, of course. But we rebelled against that. We demanded the ability to recognize important information. We asserted that those in power were making the wrong decisions, and said we could do better.

To some extent, it’s easy to argue we have done better on our own. While there still an undeniable and pervasive influence of traditional media companies on the national conversation, research has highlighted the times Twitter turned our head to what’s happening when other outlets weren’t looking. And, this year’s protests have provided plenty of anecdotal examples.

Twitter’s gatekeepers thus far, though, were interested people who other users handed power to by following, retweeting and directing mentions. An analysis of the spread of political hashtags on Twitter showed that ordinary people who are committed to these causes were able to raise awareness to their issue. That’s democracy. That’s what I want in my social media platform.

Josh Elman argued that, instead, Twitter should give users tools to organize the information for themselves.

That’s something I can get behind. Honestly, just Monday I was scrolling through Twitter on my phone for information on Baltimore when I screamed “I need my columns.” TweetDeck is always open when I’m on my desktop while columns beautifully organized by hashtag, search words, and specialized lists move at varying (but comprehensible) speeds. Those tools help me keep law and order on my Twitter without an algorithm. And, while doing that hands the power to elites and institutions, at least they’re the ones I choose.

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I’m Snopes-ing that 1923 teacher contract

1929 teacher contract

While I won’t argue with the sentiment that the working conditions of teachers has improved vastly during the past 85 years, I’m calling fake on the photo of a teacher contract from days bygone.

Meandering around the Internet is a photo of what purports to be a 1923 teacher contract. It’s particularly timely in Wisconsin and other states because of a political debate about the Right To Work bill, but most people are sharing it from the account of the Ohio Education Association. That account’s photo from Feb. 20 has been share more than 90,000 times.

From the first time I saw it, Megan’s hoax radar sprang into action. A little searching and I found nothing definitive. Why hasn’t Snopes addressed this one yet and made my life easy?

So, here I present my evidence to say this one is fake. Prove me wrong.

  • My radar went up because of the typesetting. That sure looks like some Times New Roman — a font available in word processors and image editors, but not so much 1923. In fact, Times New Roman didn’t first appear until nine years later.
  • There’s no place to sign this contract. It was pretty long ago, but signing contracts to validate them is a pretty old practice.
  • Sept. 1, 1923, was a Saturday.  I’m not saying a contract couldn’t start on a Sunday. I just feel like it would be unlikely to start that day.
  • Similar lists are fakes.
  • Actual contracts are boring. For comparison, take a look at Wisconsin’s regulations about schools and teacher duties in 1929.
  • I think it should be “Teacher contract” or “Teacher’s contract.” Teachers contract doesn’t make a lot of sense. they had sense in 1923. And, grammar. That too.
  • Petticoats weren’t much of a thing in 1920s fashion until later in the decade. No that every teacher walked straight out of the fashion pages, but it seems strange that wearing two would be a requirement.

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5 scholarly things we learned from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Next up in my “5 scholarly things…” series is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Because, really, did we learn anything from The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn?

I’ll leave the hot takes for other sites. I’ll leave the tears for the secrecy of my own dark living room. I’ll leave the heartbreak for when The Daily Show with Amy Pohler is ending.

Let’s just get to it:

1. ‘Moments of Zen.’ Xenos and Becker.

What the researchers did: Participants in the first experiment were shown either a traditionally presented (hard) news story or a segment of comedic news about the same subject. Next, they researchers let the participants the surf the Internet while monitoring what they searched for and what they looked at using super secret spy (research) software, i.e. the participants didn’t know what they were being watched.

A second group of participants (totally different people) in a second experiment watched the hard news clip or the comedic news clip. Then, they were made to watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer about the same topic and quizzed on their knowledge about the topic.

What we learned: Among the less-politically interested, the comedic news provided a gateway to search out traditionally reported news about the topic. But, they also learned less from the comedic news than from traditionally reported news.

My take: Audiences need prior knowledge to get the joke. So, it’s unsurprising that audiences learned less from comedic news than traditional news. But, maybe there is hope for the future if watching fake news inspires you to search out more information-packed news.

Interesting fact: This was one of the first academic papers I read when I started grad school. Jonee Lewis and I presented it in our New Media and Democracy course. Since then, the slide show has garnered more than 1,000 views. Seriously, 1,000 views for some boring thing I did for class. Also, I work one floor down from Xenos.

No, not that kind of gateway.

Cite: Xenos, M. A., & Becker, A. B. (2009). Moments of Zen: Effects of The Daily Show on information seeking and political learning. Political Communication, 26(3), 317-332.

2. ‘Laughing Matters.’ Bingham & Hernandez

What the researchers did: In a field experiment, two sociology professors used relevant clips from a variety of TV news sources in their lessons. Afterward, they surveyed the students about what they learned and their opinions about using the clips in the classroom.

What we learned: Students said they remembered and liked what they learned through watching humorous video clips, including Louis C.K. and TDS, that illustrated sociological concepts. The emotional experience of laughing resonated with the students, and connected for them the concepts to their everyday lives.

My take: In the survey after watching the funny clips, 97 percent of students said watching the clips added to the learning experience. Similarly, 96 percent said the clips were an effective learning tool. Those are numbers dictators get elected by. While we’ve learned scholarly things from TDS, we can also teach scholarly things using TDS.

Interesting fact: Beavers (2011) found TDS clips were also effective at teaching political science. Really, the whole course should just be watching the show.

Bingham, S. C., & Hernandez, A. A. (2009). “Laughing matters”: The comedian as social observer, teacher, and conduit of the sociological perspective. Teaching Sociology, 37(4), 335-352.

Stewart likes to laugh, too.

3. ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Audience Attitude Change during the 2004 Party Conventions.’ Morris

What the researcher did: This one’s a two-parter. First he did a content analysis of the jokes during both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Second, he used survey data that asked people the same questions about their political opinions and views twice: before and after the conventions. That survey data also included information about what type of television programs – including TDS – they watched during that period.

What we learned: The content analysis found that jokes that appeared during the Democratic convention characterized the participants as pandering and politically blundering. Republication jokes also included pandering, but more often attacked character flaws.

The survey data showed that when all other factors were eliminated, those who watched TDS during the conventions had a change in political opinions. Particularly, non-partisans (people who say they have no particularly political party leaning) who watch TDS had a less favorable opinion of Bush after the Republican convention than before.

My take: On one hand, these findings aren’t particularly surprising. People who watch TDS tend to be influenced by the opinions of the show. I wouldn’t have a lot to study if the media didn’t have an effect on public opinion. The thing I found interesting was the size of the effect of TDS compared to other shows. For example, while the favorability of Bush changed among those who watch David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno also changed, it didn’t change enough that we can say that change wasn’t chance. But, on a 10-point scale, people’s view of Bush decreased on average 1.19 points.

Morris, J. S. (2009). The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and audience attitude change during the 2004 party conventions. Political Behavior, 31(1), 79-102.

4.     ‘Predicting the Consumption of Political TV Satire: Affinity for Political Humor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report.’ Hmielowski, Holbert, Lee.

What the researchers did: Surveyed by phone 305 people about their personality and their television viewing habits.

What they learned: Age, cable TV watching, satire sitcom watching and liking humor are all predictors that you’ll watch TDS (and shows like it).

My take: These seem to confirm the types of things we would expect of an audience that who tunes into a humorous, satirical cable TV show every evening. But, it leaves unanswered a big question: Why is a 52-year-old so appealing to a young crowd? It’s no longer an acceptable answer to say that he’s on at 11 p.m., when the older folks are in bed. Nor is it fair to say it’s only people who have cable. Many (including me) now have access to the show the next day in normal waking hours for free.

Cite: Hmielowski, J. D., Holbert, R. L., & Lee, J. (2011). Predicting the consumption of political TV satire: Affinity for political humor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Communication Monographs, 78(1), 96-114.

5. ‘Primacy Effects of The Daily Show and National TV News Viewing: Young Viewers, Political Gratifications, and Internal Political Self-Efficacy.’ Holbert, Lambe, Dudo and Carlton.

What the researchers did: Participants in this a lab experiment was assigned to one of three conditions: To watch a TDS clip first and then a clip from CNN; to watch a CNN clip and then a TDS clip; and a group who saw no media clip. Then, the researchers split all the participants into two groups based their answers to three three questions about how much they believed they could cause political change. This split, done along the median, was made a high political self-efficacy and low self-efficacy groups. When you count the three manipulated conditions and two efficacy groups, they had six groups. After the participants viewed the clips (or didn’t in the control condition), they were asked about their need for political information was met by the shows – this is called political gratification.

What we learned: People who already feel low self-efficacy – people who think nothing they do matters to – feel less political gratification if they first watch The Daily Show and then later CNN than if they watch CNN first and The Daily Show second. Those with high political self-efficacy felt pretty much the same about how much political information they got regardless of order.

My take: This is the most fancy-worded way to say: You have to know a bit about politics before you watch TDS to get the joke. This paper talks about primacy effect – how order matters. But, for me it’s rarely like I specifically consume news in a particular time-ordered chunks. Maybe I first see a headline on Twitter, then I see some jokes about that on Twitter, later in the day watch TDS where that topic is addressed. The next morning I make time to read a whole news article about that topic. So while this experiment has implications for the theoretical ideas it wanted to test, I would like to hear from the authors how they think these results work under normal viewing habits.

Cite: Holbert, R. L., Lambe, J. L., Dudo, A. D., & Carlton, K. A. (2007). Primacy effects of The Daily Show and national TV news viewing: Young viewers, political gratifications, and internal political self-efficacy. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 51(1), 20-38.

There’s really only one way to end a post about Jon Stewart. Here it is, your moment of zen.

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The creative-objective dichotomy is a lie

It’s that time of year when students hit a fork in the road.


They must decide which of two concentrations: Reporting or Strategic Communication. That decision dictates which course they take in the Spring semester. When course scheduling time rolls around, a portion of my students hang back after class or show up in my office asking which direction to take.

I want them to choose the one they will most enjoy and the one that will be most beneficial to their careers.  I honestly don’t favor one choice over another. Only one answer gets me riled:

“I’m taking the strat comm track because I’m creative.”

Ugg. I really don’t know where this notion was born. But, I’ll blame Man Men. Jon Hamm, darn you.

When I ask students, they generally report they were great at a creative writing course in high school, and everything we’ve done in class has seemed so…. “formulaic.” They complain they are constrained by concept of objectivity, the patterns of story structures, and the conventions of journalistic writing.

But, I don’t understand why they feel strat comm assignments are more creative. News releases and summaries of survey results hardly seem more mind-freeing than feature stories and interactive data visualizations.

Careers in media buying don’t seem more creative than ones in news app development.

I too was awesome in my high school creative writing courses. I still have the Post-It note on which my teacher wrote “You WILL be a published author someday.”

The thought, though, of going off to a solitary pondside house to write sounded more like a punishment for eating all the cookies than a promising start to fame and fortune.

In journalism, I found a career at the apex of excitement and creativity.

I felt my creativity flowing when I wrote feature stories like King For a Final Day, and when I took complicated dry topics and made them understandable to the people to which it mattered. I got to be expressive when designing news pages for an afternoon tabloid. I was stretching the bounds of my imagination when I went to my hundredth community parade and still found a way to tell an interesting story.

The creativity-objectivity dichotomy is a lie.

So, choose wisely, my friends. Pick the path at this fork that leads  your own Golden Pond. Just don’t pick based on misconceived ideas of creativity.

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Data journalism won’t be consequence free

Serendipity of a much-less-romantic variety than befell John Cusack descended on me last week: data journalism popped up everywhere.

In the class I teach, we schooled the students on Excel calculations and analyzing survey research. Then, Charles Lewis presented an intriguing talk about holding the government accountable to real-time truths by examining the data.

I compare data journalism to like a treasure hunt in a foreign language. The first step is finding the prize – the numbers that will shock, astound or confirm. The second step is translating – giving the context to why that number shocks, astounds or confirms.

When you can translate from a government-generated spreadsheet into a 40-inch story that leads to a change in society, Bruno Mars has a song to sing to you.

Some of my first data journalism came in the usual way: school district budgets.

But, things got more advanced – and more exciting – when I started down the path of a complicated municipal interest finance deal called a swaption. With the filings of a FOIA, I got some pretty crazy amounts of data. And, stories.

Having that data didn’t mean endless charts and graphs. But, it did let me hold to the fire the feet of some state lawmakers who under pressure from firms had changed the law to allow districts to sign-up for these interest deals.

That’s exactly the type action Lewis advocates. Pulling out the raw data gives stories legs to run, an anchor, a hard-to-argue-away sticking point. Sometimes a Pulitzer.

But, my fear is that a government badgered constantly by the press for data will stop making data – or at least believable data. While President Obama promised a transparent government, the types of information found at data.gov is hardly self-incriminating kind.

For example, even now we don’t know how many people are killed in this country are killed by law enforcement agents.

Why, if we constantly are calling for the data agencies know would put them in a bad light, wouldn’t that “We don’t collect that data” virus spread faster than the flu the day after the Super Bowl?

The federal government, after all, shines brightly at using data for political purposes. Something as basic and constitutionally mandated as the census, for example, has been so highly politicized that Congress argues about it every 10 years, i.e. each time we do it.

Everyone knows how to lie with statistics. But, sometimes we forget you can lie with numbers nearly as easily.

Numbers without context, without methodologically sound collection, without a fair cleaning process aren’t facts anymore than the average opinion. But, they can be more dangerous because they look like holy truths that can’t be challenged and debated the way opinions are.

Numbers aren’t holy truths, though. When we don’t like the numbers, we can change how the question is asked, how answers are recorded, or if those numbers see the light of day.

If next up the federal government decides it would rather not like Americans to know the number of deaths by wallaby trampling, the simplest thing would be to change the category to “marsupial deaths” on the form coroners file. (And, maybe, simultaneously start a smear campaign against kangaroos.)

By redefining how the category, the government could avoid the embarrassment of not knowing and instead say it can’t be determined from what we know.

And, even in this age of Big Data, NSA collections, and data investigative journalism, we need to remember that human decisions always play a part in the answers to our questions.

How else does “Serendipity” end up second on a list of all-time best rom-coms?

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Feeling unwelcome

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 6.12.58 PM

I usually don’t live my politics out loud – much a leftover of my journalism days.

But this evening’s Tweet from the Wisconsin GOP got me good. It’s not really a partisan issue, but rather a geography issue.

The state GOP claims it doesn’t need “east coast values.” Apparently, the East Coast is such a begrudged place it doesn’t even merit capitalization.

Does the GOP mean to imply that MegDunk, an East Coast native living, working and participating in democracy in a Midwest state is unwelcome?

So, what are “East Coast values”? The news release the tweet links to seems to imply that they are liberal, elitist and extreme.

Maybe the best political strategy is avoid attacking an entire region of the country when it seems likely that at least a few of your likely voters are transplants.

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