Posted in Conferences & Conventions, Education, multimedia journalist

How Improving Your Math Improves Your Journalism

By Malik Singleton, Contributing Editor at City Limits

Want to write better stories? Do the math.  It’s a great post on the Online News Association’s site about reasons math skills are more essential in reporting than ever before, especially since readers have ever-increasing access to information and they’ll fact check your credibility to pieces (just recall Dan Rather’s Bush 43 fiasco).

Seems obvious after the fact, since reporting is supposed to stress getting news right over getting it first (just recall the media’s recent premature Joe Paterno death embarrassment, as covered in the New York Times).

So numbers should be every journalist’s trusted weapon, especially we investigative journalists. In his post, Lucas Timmons says:
“Don’t be scared of math. It’s a strong storytelling tool that journalists need to embrace and use to do their jobs better… The lack of basic math literacy can lead to shoddy journalism.”

Timmons points to this 2011 post by Libby Copeland on Slate about misreading and misreporting numbers,  “Church Makes You Fat and News Stories Make You Stupid.”

I’m pointing out these perspectives as I prepare to attend Investigative Reporters and Editors & NICAR’s  conference dedicated to computer-assisted reporting, happening the last week of February in St. Louis.  Yes the name of this concentration is totally outdated and antiquated because it was coined in the forgotten era when reporters used noisy, clunky typewriters — what are those?

Meanwhile we all use computers now, so who are these hermits at this conference who haven’t noticed that we’re all assisted by computers now? Well, they’re still running circles around computer users who mostly copy/paste from Word into a CMS.

Most panels and workshops at these events delve deep into ways to improve your reporting by mastering data and statistics analysis. The topics can get very technical and start to seem geared toward software programmers more than to people who we think of as news reporters, but programming skills, math skills, and data-driven journalism skills are being demanded increasingly by news organizations large and small so it pays to pay attention.

If you’re interested — if not for this year then hopefully for next year — believe me, the CAR conferences definitely have plenty of sessions geared toward total newbies; ripe green novices who feel they have no natural ability whatsoever. That’s how most folks start out and then surprise themselves so don’t dismiss this area too early because, hey, there will be opportunities to do the work that others freak out about or give up on doing.

It’s one thing to master multimedia and social media skills and consider yourself tech savvy, but you will step it up tenfold if you master math and data and news app programming skills. I really hope to start seeing more NABJ and NAHJ folks up in NICAR’s conferences.

Posted in Innovation, journalism, multimedia journalist, News

Will We Soon Work Among Robot Reporters?

By Malik Singleton, Developer,

Nowadays cars park themselves, remote SWAT bots snatch perps, and there are even robo-bartenders. So, inevitably, journalists are also having to share the stage with robots — case in point: here is a 1705-word story with no byline. Why? It could very well be because a robot wrote it.

Recently, I attended a Meetup and learned about a technology called Narrative Science, a service that “turns data into stories.” This service, already being used by a few newsrooms, processes statistics then associates those numbers with pre-programmed rules of grammar and phrasing to ultimately spit out a “story” that is readable and natural-sounding to humans.

The best examples of its results are with number-driven stories such as baseball recaps, financial earnings reports and real estate analyses. The Narrative Science engine actually tries to figure out what the numbers mean. It interprets highs and lows, compares current performance with historical averages, intelligently evaluates trends or anomalies, and produces prose that easily amounts to a kind of reporting, but the question for real people is: is that really journalism?

Larry Adams, a real person at Narrative Science, says, “it absolutely is journalism.” The VP Product Management defends the authenticity of the service’s reporting because he says there are living and breathing writers behind everything, though in less traditional roles.

“We have editorial staff from Medill and Columbia training the system. The content has the voice of the writers and gets produced via automation.” So in the case of earnings reports, Adams says they read “tons” of reports to deconstruct the angles that journalists use.

“There are only so many hundreds of combinations of angles, so we establish rules.” They call these rules representative language and they assign what they call “interestingness” to certain types of information to teach the system qualitative news judgment. We still ask the question whether this is all we human news people do or if we do something more.

Can a computer really connect the dots like a thinking person can? Don’t computers lack the sensibilities to find the emotional elements of a story? Rich Gordon of MediaShift’s Idea Lab says, “human journalists will do — and should do — the kind of reporting and storytelling that computers can’t.”

Adams says human journalists should, in fact, focus more on interviews and less on tasks like research. “Narrative Science is not going to be able to interpret body language, but it employs a vast history of information with a breadth of coverage that an entire human staff can’t do.”

This thinking is what has led some newsrooms, including the Big Ten Network, to adopt Narrative Science. The startup company is betting that news organizations will consider that it is too expensive and logistically impossible to have reporters cover every newsworthy story. Not to mention the chore of certain types of coverage, some real reporters actually get bored with writing mundane reports — so why not switch their focus to things like one-on-one interviews, enterprise stories, human interest pieces, in-depth investigations, etc.?

Although Narrative Science is still being fine tuned and only works for a few types of stories, the big impact it’s having so far is that it’s forcing us to have a very critical debate.