Mark Hansen explains how computation has forever changed the practice of journalism. Over the last decade, journalists have gradually expanded the range of their investigations, incorporating data, code and algorithms both as tools to report with as well as tools to report on. Each year, Mark teaches a data-oriented class at the Columbia Journalism School, with Jupyter as a kind of computationally expressive “reporter’s notebook.”
Mark’s talk borrows its structure from “An Ode to Reporter’s Notebooks,” a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Philip Eil, a freelance journalist from Providence, Rhode Island. The article outlines beautifully the power of these “unglamorous objects: a slab of paper and cardboard, held together by a corkscrew-like strip of metal.” We have all seen portrayals of journalists in television shows and movies, notebooks in hand, scribbling furiously. For Eil, a notebook symbolizes the power and uniqueness of journalism as a profession.
Eil refers to a standard reporter’s notebook as “a license to talk to interesting people” and “a ticket to interesting places.” It is a place to record “impressions of the world” because “[t]o report is to be alert and alive in a particular time and place.” Mark will argue that the purpose of the computations formulated in Jupyter (whether through R or Python) take on new agency, a new connection to the world around us, when crossed with the public mission of journalism. As an example, Mark will discuss his class from the Spring of 2017 which focused on the computational tools and techniques that, while not necessarily new, certainly achieved new prominence in the national election in 2016 and beyond.
The vast networks of information that we rely on every day are simply too large for us to examine in their entirety. To get a sense of “what’s on,” we take feeds from algorithmic recommender systems, we scan trending topics, we focus on information shared with us by our friends or people we trust. Recently, we have seen how these tools and strategies for directing our attention can be hacked. Mark’s class in 2017 looked at each of these topics, in turn. Ultimately, their work produced a story appearing in the New York Times called “The Follower Factory,” a long piece of data journalism that looked fake accounts on Twitter. (It was cited by Twitter as the reason for its recent purge of millions accounts from people’s follower lists.) With “The Follower Factory,” we see another of Eil’s views of reporter’s notebooks—as “the world’s greatest mechanisms for accountability.”
In the Spring of 2018, Mark led the second incarnation of his class, joining a New York City-wide effort to create new technologies and look for new kinds of stories that respond to this new societal condition—to the “threats to journalism” outlined above. The broad initiative is described here, and you’ll see that there were six campuses involved—Cornell Tech, Columbia University, City University of New York, New York University, the New School, and the Pratt Institute. But again, Jupyter was the key to the world of computation.
Beyond Twitter and Facebook and similar networks, without question, data, code and algorithms are forming systems of power in our society. As explainers of last resort, it is crucial that journalists be able to interrogate these systems, holding power to account. Jupyter is a powerful tool that can change the way journalists see themselves—and, perhaps, the way the profession sees itself. To end with one final quote from Eil, “A reporter’s notebook is one of the simplest, cheapest, and quickest ways to change someone’s life.“
Mark Hansen would like to thank Gabriel Dance, Nick Confessore, and Rich Harris from the New York Times. He would also like to thank Mike Young and Suman Deb Roy and the students in his computational classes.
Mark Hansen is a professor of journalism and the director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a bicoastal collaboration between the Columbia Journalism School and the School of Engineering at Stanford University with a mission to explore the interplay between technology and story. Previously, Mark was a professor in the Department of Statistics at UCLA. In addition to his technical work, he also has an active art practice involving the presentation of data for the public. His work with the Office for Creative Research has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the London Science Museum, and the Cartier Foundation in Paris and in permanent displays in the lobbies of the New York Times building and the Public Theater in Manhattan. Mark holds a BS in applied math from the University of California, Davis, and a PhD and MA in statistics from the University of California, Berkeley.
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