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Archive for November, 2015

My Oculus Rift selfie

My Oculus Rift selfie

Virtual reality has long been one of those things on my someday list, a list that often gets more intention than attention. Unless I get a nudge. Like a request from the dean.

I sent Jerry Ceppos, dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, an email earlier this month, asking him to pass on to the faculty my willingness to guest-teach some classes this month. I was excused from teaching a regular course this semester because of my ever-changing plans for finishing my lymphoma treatment. But I enjoyed guest-teaching for a couple of colleagues early in November and had a fairly open calendar for the rest of the month (because I thought I might be in the hospital), so I offered to guest for some other faculty colleagues.

I turned down a colleague who asked about a topic on which I lacked expertise. I figure you should teach what you know. But somehow when the dean asked if I could teach something on my someday list, I decided someday was today (yesterday, actually).

So I taught a class on ethical issues in virtual reality journalism Tuesday, even though I have consumed little VR and produced none. Generally I prefer to teach matters on which I have some expertise, but I also like to continue expanding my expertise, so I agreed to lead a discussion of virtual reality issues in Jerry’s ethics class. I had about two days to learn enough about VR to teach it in a class.

Let’s back up a little: I wasn’t starting at zero here. I’ve heard speculation about VR being the future of news or entertainment or business for a decade or two, always curious. 360-degree visual technology certainly transformed video games from the flat original Super Mario Brothers games I used to play with my sons (though the boys have grown up and moved away, so I don’t play today’s 360 games). Even if video games are more virtual than reality, the concept is the same: Presenting an experience that feels real. Or “virtually” real, whatever that means.

I remember my fascination a decade ago when a real estate agent sent a photographer to the home we were planning to sell, and the photographer set a camera on a tripod, pivoting to shoot 12 (as I recall) photographs of each room of our home. Computer software would stitch the photos together into a “virtual tour” that the agent would post in a digital listing, inviting people to get a 360-degree look at each of our main rooms. I don’t know how much the virtual tour contributed, but the home sold for a good price.

I have a less detailed memory of a reporting project in the 1990s, early in the days of digital photography. I was reporting on the impact of government regulation, mandates and spending in a town, and a photojournalist shot pictures of all the businesses around the town square. A designer used some new software to stitch the pictures together into what appeared to be a panoramic photo of the town square for an informational graphic, in which I reviewed the governmental role in each of the businesses (I just looked unsuccessfully for a clip to share here, but I think my memory is accurate).

More recently, I encouraged (with mixed success) colleagues to try Gigapan panoramic photography, such as a Shanghai skyline photo stitching together 12,000 different photographs or the panoramic photograph of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Click on the photograph to zoom in and move your mouse to pan around and you can clearly see members of the Obama, Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Biden families there, as well as recognizable members of the Supreme Court and Senate.

Improving technology moved the 360-degree viewing experience into video: advances in production technology, including wearable GoPro video cameras; video production software that stitches together moving images; headsets for viewing VR.

In a visit to Syracuse University last year, I first put an Oculus Rift headset on, as Dan Pacheco showed me where he was experimenting with VR applications for journalism. With the headset on, it appeared I was at a flooding scene. As I looked to the left and right or spun all the way around, it felt as if I were right at the scene, with water and flood damage all around me. I felt kind of disoriented wearing the headset and feeling surrounded by the scene. Some people actually feel motion sickness using VR headsets.

That summer, Dan worked at Gannett headquarters in Washington, helping produce a VR project for the Des Moines Register called “Harvest of Change,” giving the wearer of a headset the experience of being on an Iowa farm. (Well, not the full experience: VR technology is effective at providing the sights and sounds of a scene, but I’ve been on some Iowa farms, and you need at least one other sense to get the full experience.)

“Harvest” was a star of last year’s Online News Association conference, but I didn’t actually put on the Oculus Rift and experience the farm. Every time I went by the booth where it was being presented, the crowd was big enough that I decided to come back later.

Two Manship colleagues, Lance Porter and Tad Odell have been learning about VR and we have two Oculus Rift headsets at the school. Lance and Tad guest-taught a class for my Interactive Storytelling Tools class last spring.

I’d noticed other VR developments, including another story featured at this year’s ONA conference and an StoryNext conference last month, neither of which I could attend. So it was like the dean was telling me it was finally time to really learn something about virtual reality.

Jerry was prompted by the New York Times’ release of its project “The Displaced,” and Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s column about reader reaction to VR, including some ethical issues raised by journalists.

Jerry loaned me the Google Cardboard viewer he received as a Times subscriber. I thought it would make a nice prop, contrasting with the Oculus Rift (shown in the selfie at the top of this post). Margaret noted the paradox of the Times’ invitation to readers to experience cutting-edge digital technology by unfolding and assembling a cardboard device:

The box itself (when assembled, it looked like a Fresh Direct container for three jumbo eggs) struck me as an almost instant anachronism: ready for its place on a historical timeline of the digital age’s evolution. This is what happened in 2015.

But the cardboard goggles generated some enthusiasm:

The structure of my class presentation was pretty easy to plan: I’d start with some discussion of the history and technology of VR, and its potential application in various communication fields represented in the class. Then we’d discuss some ethical issues.

I didn’t have time to produce a VR project, but I wasn’t asked to teach how to use VR, but to discuss ethics. While I already knew of some ethical issues, I knew it was a fairly simple reporting effort to increase my understanding of VR enough to lead the ethics discussion.

Margaret and Jerry (obviously trying to learn VR himself) provided some links that helped in my crash course:

A report from StoryNext, The State of Virtual Reality in Journalism, was perhaps most helpful, both filling in the recent development of VR as well as laying out some good ethical issues to discuss with the class. This is too new a field for me to present do’s and don’ts, but it’s unfolding quickly enough to raise some issues for the students to consider as they consume and potentially produce VR.

And I continued learning about VR after the class, as students told me of VR being used in athletic recruiting and in therapy for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Here are the slides I used for the class:

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I taught a class Monday in data visualization for Josh Grimm’s In-Depth Reporting class at LSU.

I’m no expert in data visualization, but I studied the use of interactive databases for the American Press Institute in 2008 and my students experimented with a variety of data viz tools last spring in my course on learning interactive storytelling tools. (I’ll add some links to the students’ posts on data-viz tools later, but I want to get this published now and I won’t have time to add links until later.)

My point in this class is that you can tell stories lots of different ways using data, and that you can teach yourself pretty easily how to use some effective data viz tools. I admire the skills of some data specialists I know, and hope some of our students will follow them into that specialty. But I hope every student (and professional) journalist develops data skills to find and tell stories routinely.

Examples I used in the class (and a few I didn’t have time to use):

Thanks to Kyle Whitfield, Mark Lorando, Tom Meagher, Maryjo Webster, Daniel Tedford, Kevin Dupuy and Michelle Rogers for providing these examples.

I collected information from the students using a Google Form and used it to create some data visualizations about the class using Infogr.am and Google Maps. I was running out of time and rushed through these pretty quickly, but you can make pretty simple graphics quickly using these tools. I elaborate a bit more here on some of them.

I wasn’t able to embed the resulting Infogr.am graphics in my free WordPress blog (they should embed on most websites). Here are some screen grabs of the graphics (with links below to the interactive versions):

Infogram devices

You can see the interactive version of the graphic on devices here.

This pie chart, I noted, would be more effective with graduated shades (perhaps yellow to red) than the random colors assigned to each number:

number of devices

In a graphic about the students’ use of social media, I tried different data viz tools offered by Infogr.am. This line chart didn’t work for me (though it might work for other detail). An effective graphic makes a point quickly and this one requires some study:

infogram line graph

This horizontal bar graph also took a bit of work to understand, but quickly shows that the most popular social tools with the students are Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and that the students aren’t using Foursquare at all. The graphic on devices was filled out later, when I had 26 responses instead of 24.

I deliberately didn’t update this because it actually illustrates some points you need to check in doing data visualization: The data need to be accurate. My first take of this didn’t have fully accurate data: You can see that I only have 23 responses, instead of 24, on Snapchat and Instagram. Actually, I had 24 responses at the time, but failed to double-check my data before uploading it for the graphic. These are the kinds of errors you need to avoid and double-checking you need to do both before uploading data and after finishing a visualization project.

infogram bar chart

The most effective graphic on social networks, I thought, was this layered pie chart, where you can (in the interactive version, not the screengrab below) see how differently students use the social tools. It would have been more effective, though, with a gradual color scale, perhaps with yellow for 1, orange for 3 and red for 5, with shades in between at 2 and 4. But I was trying to show how quickly you can make a simple graphic. That’s the first step in data visualization. I’d expect such improvements in subsequent projects.

infogram pie chart

Moving to Google Maps, I quickly imported information from the spreadsheet of student responses to create a map showing where the students were from (that embed works here):

During the class, Deanna Narveson did a quick data viz project on social media engagement by Louisiana gubernatorial candidates:
https://public.tableau.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js

Dashboard 1

Here are my slides from the class:

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Times Sullivan postThanks to New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan for providing the first acknowledgment by anyone at the Times of a fundamentally flawed story I have noted here before.

I won’t revisit the saga of a 2007 Times puff piece about matchmaker Pari Livermore here. Read the links below if you want the background. The story’s premise was flawed and it inaccurately referred to a “charity event,” when the primary beneficiary was not registered as a charity. I think the Times should have corrected the story, regardless of its age (Sullivan called for an follow-up, not a correction). While we disagree about the need for a correction, I applaud Sullivan’s acknowledgment that the Times should have followed up on it when it learned about its flawed premise.

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

On one point I will heartily agree with Sullivan. Nancy Levine contacted Sullivan and me after she almost made a donation to Livermore, after finding and reading the Times story. But Levine, an executive recruiter, did a little more checking and learned that Spotlight on Heroes, the organization Livermore told her to make the check out to, wasn’t actually registered as a charity.

Levine has sent dozens of emails to Sullivan, other Times editors, other media editors and directors, California legislators and regulators. Sullivan described Levine as “one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with.” That I can attest to. This, not so much:

I’ll note that Mr. Buttry is almost as dogged as Ms. Levine.

No, I’m not nearly as dogged as Nancy is. She is also one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with. The media need persistent, dogged people to hold us accountable. Thanks, Nancy!

Twitter reactions

Previous posts relating to the Times Livermore story

Is there a statute of limitations on correcting errors or updating flawed stories?

Why are journalists so reluctant to correct and re-examine challenged stories?

Deni Elliott: Journalists often fail to think beyond ‘Charity = GOOD’

Other journalists correct a story the New York Times stubbornly refuses to correct

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A sponsored post in my Facebook news feed Nov. 13.

A sponsored post in my Facebook news feed Nov. 13.

I can’t figure out whether all the data that Amazon and Facebook have about me is scary or laughable.

But I know this: Surveillance of my Internet use isn’t the best way to sell me stuff.

Several years ago, I noticed a vendor in Washington’s Eastern Market who sold purses for women made from hardback book covers. My grandmother, Francena Arnold, was a successful author of Christian romance novels, so I ordered her first and best-selling novel, Not My Will, from Amazon and had a purse made for Mom (I couldn’t find a hardback edition available today).

For months afterward, I got emails from Amazon urging me to buy other Christian romance novels, even though I’ve never read one that Grandma didn’t write. Proud as I am of her, it’s her genre, not mine. But I get that: I registered with Amazon and bought a book there, and their computer tells them that I might like these other books that people who bought Not My Will also liked. That’s probably a successful use of data most of the time.

Check out the suggestion above from Amazon in my Facebook feed today: Amazon or Facebook or both think I might be interested in buying Pete Rose’s book, My Prison Without Bars. It’s a 12-year-old book, and I don’t know whether I’ve ever ordered a baseball book from Amazon (I usually get my baseball books as gifts), certainly not one that showed any interest in Pete Rose.

Here’s why Amazon and/or Facebook think I might be interested in that book, though: I went to Amazon and grabbed a screenshot of the cover for an Oct. 31 Hated Yankees post mocking Fox Sports for putting Rose and Alex Rodriguez in its pre-game studio during the World Series. I called it the Fox Sports Image Rehab Clinic and posted memes making fun of Rose’s photobomb moment in the studio.

I think Pete Rose is a liar and an embarrassment to baseball, however well he played the game before he started gambling. I didn’t buy the book in 2003 and I’m not going to buy it today. But because I visited that page a couple weeks ago Amazon and/or Facebook think a gentle reminder might nudge me back there to finally buy it.

Other times, when I have actually bought something from Amazon, I’ve seen ads for the same thing shortly afterward on Facebook. These were things that you’d only want one of. Maybe they thought I’d want to give them as gifts?

Another time I searched for an image to use in a smart-ass remark in a Facebook discussion. And Facebook kept showing me the same image for several days after that. (See my discussion of that below.)

It’s creepy that Facebook and Amazon computers know I showed an interest in the Pete Rose book and are trying to figure out how to sell me the book. But I’m not going to get scared until they figure out what to do with this data.

pinata

 

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After her morning appearance on

After her morning appearance on “Good Morning America,” Maya enjoyed the sights of New York.

As I recounted in the blog yesterday, my great-niece Maya Poulter, now 10 years old, and her parents were featured Thursday morning on “Good Morning America.”

As Robin Roberts recounted her favorite GMA moments as part of the show’s 40th anniversary celebration, the most memorable was the day she found Maya after the 2010 earthquake (and shared the good news by Skype with Mandy Poulter, my niece and Maya’s adoptive mother). The earthquake devastated Haiti after Maya’s adoption had been completed but before the U.S. State Department issued a visa to bring her home to Iowa. (Maya’s story is mentioned at about the 3:00 mark of the ABC video linked above and the studio interview begins at about the 7:00 mark).

Until Roberts called, Mandy and her husband, Matt, didn’t know whether their daughter had survived the quake. On Thursday’s program, Maya and her parents updated Roberts and her viewers on Maya’s current life in Pella, Iowa, again thanking Roberts and ABC for their role in rescuing Maya from the catastrophe in her homeland.

I recounted the story and various follow-up angles at length in Wednesday’s post previewing the ABC appearance and earlier posts linked at the end of this post. Nothing new to report today, but Mandy gave me permission to share some photos from Maya’s first visit to the Big Apple. (I usually try to avoid clichés, but that one seems to fit the fun of this trip).

“We are having a great time in New York,” Mandy reported in an email Thursday. “Maya really enjoyed meeting Robin.”

Matt, Maya and Mandy outside the Good Morning America studio in Times Square.

Matt, Maya and Mandy outside the Good Morning America studio in Times Square.

Maya gave Robin Roberts a Christmas tree ornament.

Maya gave Robin Roberts a Christmas tree ornament.

Maya enjoyed a cruise on her day in New York.

Maya enjoyed a cruise on her day in New York.

Mandy, Maya and Matt enjoying New York by carriage.

Mandy, Maya and Matt enjoying New York by carriage.

Maya outside ABC's TImes Square studios.

Maya outside ABC’s TImes Square studios.

Previous posts about Maya and her rescue from Haiti

The search for Maya made the Haiti disaster story personal

Mandy and Matt reunited with Maya Esther in Haiti

Maya’s enjoying life in Iowa

Maya’s adoption becomes final in Iowa

Humanity is more important and honest than objectivity for journalists

An update on Maya Poulter, six months after Haitian earthquake

Hoping Robin Roberts moves past MDS swiftly

My great-niece, Maya Poulter, was one of the best stories of Good Morning America’s 40 years (and my 60+)

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Maya Poulter, five-plus years after being rescued from the Haiti earthquake, with help from Robin Roberts and "Good Morning America."

Maya Poulter, five-plus years after being rescued from the Haiti earthquake, with help from Robin Roberts and “Good Morning America.”

Maya with Sofia the First at Disney World this May

Maya with Sofia the First at Disney World this May

My great-niece, Maya Poulter, will be a guest on “Good Morning America” tomorrow, featured as one of the best stories from GMA’s 40 years on television. Nov. 12 update: The show aired this morning (their story is mentioned about the 3:00 mark of the ABC video and the studio interview begins at about the 7:00 mark).

I blogged several times about Maya and the GMA coverage of her story in 2010, when the show’s Robin Roberts helped find Maya among the wreckage and chaos there following the 2010 earthquake. My posts from that time are all linked at the end of this post. But the short version is that my niece, Mandy Poulter, and her husband, Matt, had completed the adoption process and were just waiting for Maya’s passport to bring her home to Iowa when the earthquake hit, devastating much of Haiti, including her orphanage. Of course, the wait to learn news about her and the exhilaration when Roberts found her, were a memorable story to our family. We’re glad they were as memorable, too, to GMA.

Maya sleeping on the ground after Robin Roberts and a GMA crew found her in Haiti in 2010.

Maya sleeping on the ground after Robin Roberts and a GMA crew found her in Haiti in 2010.

(more…)

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Ben Carson Stonehenge memeI was updating some slides for a class on writing for social media last week and wanted to update the memes I used early in the class.

When I taught a similar class last spring, I used some Rand Paul memes to illustrate points after using some Hillary Clinton memes. The Republican race didn’t have a clear front-runner, but Paul had inspired some pro and con memes that fit the writing points I was making in class. In both cases, I wasn’t trying to make partisan points about the candidates (and used pro and con memes about each of them). I was just trying to use timely points about applying the craft of writing to memes.

Paul is lagging in the Republican presidential polls, though, so I updated my slides last week with some memes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Within a week, my Carson memes were out of date. A gusher of memes was fueled by Carson’s speculation that the Egyptian pyramids were built for storing grain, followed by media debunking of his claims about getting a “full scholarship” offer to West Point, meeting Gen. William Westmoreland as a young high school ROTC cadet, behaving violently in his youth and a story about a hoax by a professor at Yale. (I’m working on a subsequent post on fact-checking, relating to these stories and Carson’s response to them.)

Each of the stories prompted more memes, including some that played on humor from multiple Carson stories.

I don’t know whether memes are a permanent form of writing that will endure, or whether they will pass as a fad. But clearly writing in social media, for now, is a matter of both the visual effect of blending words and photos and the visual use of type fonts, sizes and styles.

From a journalism standpoint, the meme combines many of the principles and techniques of headline writing with newer social-media writing techniques.

I’ve never claimed expertise in design, but I expand here (with some newer Carson memes added to the ones I used in class) on the points I made in classes last week about writing in memes:

Ben Carson memes

My former Digital First Media colleague, Ryan Teague Beckwith, did a great story in 2012 about Barack Obama as our first meme president.

Now memes are a regular part of the social media conversation about politics. Whether they love or hate Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Carson, partisans express their opinions, often with humor, in memes. You blend words and images to make a clear point supporting your candidate or mocking the opponent. If political campaigns don’t already have meme specialists, they will soon. I know of news organizations that have posted memes on social media to promote stories. I don’t know whether that will become standard, but I would be experimenting with it if I were in a newsroom someday.

Below are some Carson memes I used in last week’s classes, with some advice on writing memes (updated with a few memes that came out since my classes ended last Wednesday): (more…)

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