Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Frostburg Students Attend NICAR 2013

by Skye Pinney

This past Thursday through Sunday, Professor Andy Duncan and FSU students Caitlin Megonigal, Shawn Pillai, Chris Ullery and I attended the annual IRE NICAR Computer-Assisted Journalism conference in the Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

Much of the conference was geared towards journalists who have experience using data collection and analyzation tools. Experts in the field held 50-minute-long panels and classes to cover topics from the problems with “cherrypicked” evidence from big data to joining lists of people in Excel to find the “bad guys.” However, not every panel and class required familiarity with such tools. Basic classes in Python and Access were provided, as well as an even more basic class on the journalistic tool anyone can use- Twitter.

Doug Haddix (@DougHaddix), director of the Kiplinger program at Ohio State University, taught the class on commonly overlooked Twitter tools. At the front of a room of 40 or so journalists set up with laptops, Haddix explained browsing categories to search for particular beats and using the hashtag to tune into conversations and see what is trending in certain areas. “It’s a way that we can form a community around that event or topic,” he said. “We can think of the hashtag as a channel.”
Haddix also explained common twitter mistakes as well as the underused but powerful option to make lists on Twitter, inviting the class to subscribe to the NICAR 2013 list. With lists, users can keep up with certain groups of people’s tweets without following each person. They can add people to different lists and choose to keep them public or private. Clicking on “member of,” some will be surprised to see what lists they are on, while others may never know. He then showed the class websites for advanced twitter searches like topsy.com and snapbird.org, stating, “This is where you can find the needle in the haystack.”

The Kiplinger program in Public Affairs Media is designed to keep journalistm students from across the globe updated in the fast-changing world of digital news media. The program teaches its students to use online sources like Twitter and Youtube to tell news stories in engaging ways. Haddix states that aside from a little personal use, he uses Twitter mainly for work and as a way to save time and keep up. “I can’t imagine being a journalist without Twitter,” he said after the class was over.

Keeping up with news can be as easy as checking one’s Twitter feed, especially if he or she follows the Twitters of multiple news sources, and this can be done just about anywhere with the use of a smartphone or tablet. As people's use of devices increases, so does their use to us. Some apps in particular have gained popularity amongst journalists. In the panel “Covert reporting: using technology to cover your tracks,” ESPN’s Paula Lavigne described some of the apps she uses to research and find data without revealing her identity. One app, SpoofCard, lets a person make calls while disguising his or her number, with the option of having the number appear as another person’s number from the recipient’s contact list. The caller’s real number will not even appear on the recipient’s phone bill, and users can choose to record conversations and access them on their accounts. Conversely, the app TrapCall unmasks restricted numbers, records incoming calls, blacklists harassing callers, and even transcribes voicemails. Lavigne explained that if someone she is trying to reach for a story won't answer her calls, or if she does not want someone to know her personal number, she uses SpoofCard.

Apart from learning more about the use of devices and social media in journalism, Caitlin, Shawn, Chris and I left the conference with an understanding of the importance of interpreting data to better news stories. Chris says that he learned how to look at data, such as 911 response times, that he can use at any local level. Caitlin found the conference “very beneficial,” saying, “it really got me interested in learning more about data analysis.” She attended 3 introductory classes on Access.  Shawn states, “The NICAR conference illustrated how much raw, unorganized data is out there, on the web or otherwise, just waiting to be collected, arranged, and interpreted... Creating custom scripts to automate the collection and organization of data allows journalists to dive right into what we do best: extrapolating meaningful conclusions from an organized data set.”

When Shawn admitted that he had a lot of catching up to do in data journalism, Ron Campbell, an investigative reporter at the Orange County Register, replied, “Attending NICAR gives us all a sense of how much catching up we have to do.” In the constantly progressing world of information technology, it can be hard to stay current, but at the NICAR conferences, data miners, researches, and writers alike combine their efforts, casting a net of resources and knowledge for the entire journalism community.

This trip was made possible by grants from the FSU Foundation, the FSU Honors Program, and the FSU English Department.

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