The Best Online Journalism and Storytelling of 2015

40 Amazing Reporting Projects You Might Have Missed

by Josh Stearns and Luis Gomez

Every year storytelling and journalism on the web gets better. For the past three years I have rounded up the most compelling examples of reporting online (here is 2014, 2013, and 2012). This year I had the good fortune to collaborate with Luis Gomez on this project.

This is a labor of love. Our hope is that by shining a spotlight on this important work, we can help you discover things you might have missed and that you’ll share them and support the journalists who made them possible.

There is no formal criteria for what makes the list. We tried to focus on stories that leverage the unique potential of the web, stories that come to life on the web in ways they never could have otherwise. But we also look for stories that — while not technically groundbreaking — still hit us in the gut and stick with us.

Sometimes it is about using the right tools for the story, not every tool in the toolbox.

We know we’ve likely missed amazing pieces that deserve to be recognized — which is why we ask you to add yours to the comments here. And if you like these stories, sign up for the weekly Local Fix newsletter for more case studies on innovation and community engagement in journalism.


RACE

#BlackLivesMatter has helped fuel renewed attention to issues of race and justice in media. The following projects reflect that but it is worth also recognizing the way #BlackLivesMatter has used creative storytelling and social media to report on these issues when others wouldn’t. That is also online journalism and should be included here.

Screenshot from Tampa Bay Times

“Failure Factories” — Tampa Bay Times
Failure Factories tells the story of the end of integration at the Pinellas County School District in Florida. To tell this investigative multi-story series, the Tampa Bay Times visualizes data to illustrate the impact of desegregation in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the district. The opening prologue is simple, but powerful and effective.

The 45 Minute Mystery of Freddie Gray’s Death — Baltimore Sun
One of the biggest stories that set the tone for race and justice conversations in the media was the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore’s police. The challenge of telling the story, which started out as a local story and later evolved into a national story, is sorting out much of what happened in the minutes and hours before and after Gray’s death. The Baltimore Sun zeroes in on those moments with compelling video and details often not visible from a bird’s eye view.

#InTheirWords — USA Today
In writing about USA TODAY’s #InTheirWords project the American Journalism Review wrote that “one way to tell the stories about race [is] to remove the journalists.” Of course USA Today did not remove journalism from this piece but they did change the relationship between journalist, reader and subject. The audience can create a self-driven documentary drawing on a set of interviews with young leaders in the civil rights organizing. The project is similar to the Washington Post’s 2014 N-Word project.


SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT

Screenshot from Science News

The Martian Diaries — Science News
If the Mars Rover kept a diary, what would it look like? That is the question designers and journalists at Science News set out to answer in this great piece which draws on two and half years of photos and data from the exploration of Mars.

After the Storm — Washington Post, Independent Lens and other partners
Blurring the line between journalism and documentary film, this partnership between the Washington Post and PBS’s Independent Lens is described in the opening seconds as a “letter to future disaster survivors.” With narration, looping music and an aesthetic like a scrapbook with maps, photos and snippets of text the piece is like sitting down across from someone and listening to them tell you their story.

Primer Stories — Joe Alterio and Tim Lillis
Primer Stories is a collection of unique stories, many though not all focus on science. Alterio and Lillis invite authors to contribute short pieces and then use GIFs, illustrations, videos, and photos to bring them to life. The results feel like a kind of bespoke journalism, each one creatively and lovingly designed in ways that add richness and meaning. See for example Dragons of the Alps, You Are Here, On Ice and How to Build a Brain. (Hat tip @MollydeAguiar for this one)

Every Active Satellite Orbiting Earth — Quartz
When the Union of Concerned Scientists released a database of the 1,300 satellites currently in orbit over earth, Quartz took the data and created a visualization. Organized by size of the satellite and the country it belongs to, this interactive graphic give us a glimpse of each satellite’s launch date, users, and owners.

Greenland is Melting Away — New York Times
The New York Times used a drone to bring readers high above the melting glaciers of Greenland in this beautiful piece that was published the month before the UN climate talks in Paris. The drone footage is accompanied by scroll-to-zoom aerial imagery and data that maps of all the glacial rivers including flow rates. (See also After Years of Drought, Wildfires Rage in California from New York Times)

Japan’s New Satellite Captures an Image of Earth Every 10 Minutes — The New York Times
The graphic presents a view of the globe, in the Times words, “as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement.” It is hypnotic.


VIRTUAL REALITY

Screenshot from the New York Times

It is impossible to talk about online storytelling in 2015 without talking about the rise of virtual reality. While not a technology that was invented or pioneered in 2015, last year did mark a tipping point in the adoption of virtual reality inside newsrooms. This was perhaps most evident in the Google Cardboard/New York Times partnership in which every New York Times subscriber recieved a virtual reality viewer with their Sunday paper.

Those who are experimenting with journalism and virtual reality have set up good pages that collect all their reporting in one place. Check out the stories and apps from journalists at ABC, Vice and the New York Times, media organizations like Discovery and KCRW, and local news companies like Gannett and Digital First. On the university side, see projects by Robert Hernandez, Nonny de la Peña, the University of Arizona, and Dan Pacheco. (See more stories at the VRSE website)


IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEES

GIF via Medium

Ghost Boat — Medium
Ghost Boat, published on Medium, is nicely designed but it is worth including here not only because of how it looks but also because of how it was written. Medium set out to crowdsource the investigation into a missing ship carrying 243 migrants. The effort included many individual contributors as well as group hackathons, where teams tried to surface new evidence.

Exodus — Washington Post
Giant photos and maps welcome the reader through a multipage slideshow before this long piece begins. It traces the journey of one Syrian family’s trip to Europe. Other parts of the series used data to extrapolate out from this one family and give a larger picture of people’s movements and migrations.

Rape on the Night Shift — Reveal / Center for Investigative Reporting
Read. Watch. Listen. Those are the invitations at the beginning of this investigation from CIR’s Reveal and PBS’s Frontline. The story unfolds via an online article, a TV series and a podcast, each giving the audience a different look at the sexual violence perpetrated against immigrant workers. Original artwork, short videos and text are woven together in each part of the story.

Where Would 10.8 Million Displaced Syrians Fit? — Al Jazeera America
First created in 2013 but updated in 2015 during the refugee crisis in Europe and the ensuing debates here in the US, Al Jazeera tries to put the scale of the Syrian migration using population data from US cities. The project then allowed people to submit snapshots of their own area with comments reflecting on the crisis.


GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY

Screenshot from the Guardian

Homan Square: A Portrait of Chicago’s Detainees — The Guardian
Spencer Ackerman and Zach Stafford’s groundbreaking report on a secret interrogation facility in Chicago where at least 3,500 Americans have been detained is harrowing enough on its own. But The Guardian also created an interactive feature that provides individual details of many of the detainees and a number of video interviews where former detainees talk about abuse inside the building.

The Drone Papers — The Intercept
One of the most detailed looks at the US Drone program we’ve ever seen came from a cache of documents leaked to the Intercept. Weaving together source documents, photographs and animations that spill off the edges of the screen this series gives the you the feel of flipping through the files yourself.

The Demolition of Worker’s Comp — ProPublica
The poignant original illustrations that ProPublica commissioned for this piece are powerful enough, but then, when paired with interactive data visualization and photography, the piece drives home the struggle and the injustice people who are injured on the job often face.

The Making of a Narco-Terrorist — ProPublica
Using original illustrations and an interactive site that feels like a card game, ProPublica raises questions about sting operations carried out by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the agency’s claims that drug smugglers are funding terror. This project stood out for us because it is encouraging to see the use of hand-made illustrations in journalism as a way to guide a reader into the story similar to the way comics have done so for ages.

Missed Signs. Fatal Consequences — Austin American Statesman
In a massive three-part series, journalists at the Austin American Statesman create a damning narrative about the state of child protective services in Texas. Weaving together original source documents, data, photos and video the heartbreaking series covers the story from many different angles. What makes this project especially compelling is the Stateman’s use of sidebars that include comments and photos from its Facebook community.


CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND POLICE

Screenshot from The Marshall Project

The Next to Die — The Marshall Project
If you want to know who is on death row and next to be executed, The Marshall Project keeps a visual timeline of each death and the statistics in each state currently practicing the death penalty. It’s grim, it’s up-to-the-date, and takes data journalism to a new dimension. The project uses data and reporting from local partners around the country.

More than 900 people have been fatally shot by police officers in 2015 — Washington Post
There was no one source of data on police shootings so the Washington Post built their own database from “news reports, public records, Internet databases and original reporting.” The result is an unprecedented shooting database where the body count links to tiny profiles of each person who was killed.

The Counted — The Guardian
The Guardian launched their database about the same time as the Washington Post, but took a very different approach. Building off a few existing datasets, The Guardian turned to the community to help submit tips about deaths by law enforcement. The project combines reporting with verified crowdsourced information (and you can see their methodology here).

The Empty Chair — New York Magazine
The story of Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations was one of the biggest stories of the year, and New York Magazine tackled the issue in a dramatic way: By putting each of his 35 accusers on the cover of the magazine with the exception of one empty chair. While the magazine’s print cover caught everyone’s attention upon release, the publication was even more impressive on the web where it told each of the women’s stories.

Unsolved — Journal Sentinel
Capitalizing on the crowdsourcing sleuthing fever that Serial started in 2014, the Journal Sentinel published this multimedia mystery series — paired with podcasts and videos — about a 14-year-old high school freshman who went missing in the suburbs of Milwaukee 40 years ago.

An Unbelievable Story of Rape — ProPublica / The Marshall Project
The story is about a young woman who was punished by police for reporting a rape they didn’t believe happen, one that was eventually proven true once the serial rapist was caught. But the story is also about two nonprofit news organizations coming together by mere happenstance as two investigative reporters sort of stumbled upon each other as they quietly looked into the same story.

(There is a lot of notable criminal justice reporting that happens at the local level and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It may not be as flashy as others, but see these two pieces by the Daytona News Journal and Atlanta Journal Constitution)


THE ANNIVERSARY OF HURRICANE KATRINA

Screenshot from The Lens/The Nation

Missing Home: What We Demolished in New Orleans After Katrina — The Lens and The Nation
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone. Through data, maps and photos the New Orleans-based nonprofit The Lens created this amazing database of all the homes that were demolished after Hurricane Katrina. And through the lens of these properties they told the stories of people who lost their homes.

The Re-Education of New Orleans — Education Week
On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Education Week focused in on how schools have changed in the city since the storm. Building on personal stories, strong photos and revealing data the piece tells the story in the voice of the people most affected.

10 Years After Katrina — New York Times
The New York Times took a neighborhood approach to telling the story of Katrina’s anniversary by going back to some of the areas hardest hit by the flooding. With full screen videos and maps that compare flooded areas and demographic changes in the city, the Times tries to put a face on a city that is still in transition.

The Next Big One — Washington Post
This piece weaves together a lot of the elements we’ve come to expect from big online stories including video, maps and stunning photos. However, Washington Post’s coverage also included drone footage and a touching series of profiles of Katrina survivors ten years after the storm.


MISCELLANEOUS

Screenshot from Do Not Track web documentary

Do Not Track — Upian, AJ+, ONF, ARTE, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Tribeca and others
In many ways, Do Not Track epitomizes the kind of creative, interactive storytelling that could only be executed on the web. The makes of Do Not Track call it “a personalized documentary series” which adapts to the person watching it. People are invited to share their data with the project, and in return it will show you “what the web knows about you.” (See also this great report on journalism and online documentaries from MIT)

A New Whitney — New York Times
This piece on the new Whitney museum is a rollercoaster of visuals that zooms the reader high above the city and through the glass walls of the new building. (See also A Gift to New York, In Time for the Pope for another interesting architecture piece.)

A Clash in the Name of Care — Boston Globe
The Boston Globe Spotlight team, subjects of one of the 2015’s best movies, delivers a powerful piece of watchdog reporting on surgeons who conduct two procedures at once. The investigation includes a clever feature where names turn into buttons that pop-up background info about the person. The piece pulls together source documents, graphics and video into a powerful package.

The Presidential Election in Emoji — The Atlantic
In a year in which Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji for it’s “word of the year” it seems only fitting that a news organization should mine the pulse of the American public through the emojis they use to discuss political candidates. The Atlantic’s tracking of emojis in tweets about the candidates is a fascinating look at both social media and shifts in political discourse.

The Life and Times of Strider Wolf — Boston Globe
It is just text and photos with a companion documentary, but it is still one the most heart wrenching and memorable stories from the past year.

Tapered Throne — Brandon Tauszik
Tauszik brings photojournalism to life through subtle and carefully crafted GIFs of Oakland’s black barbershops. The technique extends the emotion of the moment just enough to reveal little details in the motion that you might not get in a still image.

A Walk Through the Gallery: “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” — New York Times
As you scroll down the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Matisse exhibit unfolds across the screen, as if you are walking down the hall staring at the artwork yourself.

Is the Nasdaq in Another Bubble? — Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal turns the ups and downs of the stock market throughout history into a rollercoaster which readers can scroll through on the screen. As you watch you begin to feel the climbs and falls in a way that puts today’s stock market unrest into perspective.

World Bank Projects Leave a Trail of Misery Around the Globe — Huffington Post and ICIJ
In this multi-part investigation by the Huffington Post and ICIJ different episodes employ different tactics from data visualizations to videos. The reporting spans five countries, each with photos and data about the impact of World Bank Projects in those countries.

Social Reporting of Charlie Hebdo — Reported.ly
Reported.ly had just gotten up and running when news broke of the massacre at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. In their coverage of those events they began to show the power and potential of their distributed social reporting approach. Be sure to read their debrief on the coverage.


What did we miss? Help us continue to shine a spotlight on great reporting by adding links and your thoughts in the comments. (We know this list is very US-centric, so we’d love to see more examples of non-US journalism and multilingual reporting.)

Follow us on Twitter @jcstearns and @rungomez and sign up for the Local Fix newsletter for more great examples of amazing journalism and tips for how to create your own.

Next Story — Social networks could do much more to protect eyewitnesses in breaking news
Currently Reading - Social networks could do much more to protect eyewitnesses in breaking news

Social networks could do much more to protect eyewitnesses in breaking news

Facebook, Twitter and Google already have disaster response features. Why not help eyewitnesses protect and understand their rights as well?

pahudson/Flickr. Some rights reserved

This article first appeared on FirstDraftNews.com. Follow First Draft on Twitterand Facebook to get the latest reads and resources on social newsgathering, verification and fake news.

In April Facebook activated its safety check feature after a bombing in Lahore, Pakistan, sending alerts asking people to check in to confirm they were ok. However, because of some unknown error, the alerts were received by people all over the globe. Marc Bain wrote over at Quartz that “Facebook’s erroneous ‘safety check’ accidentally became a breaking news alert” because it was the first that many people had heard about the attack.

This got me thinking about the power of big social platforms to drive attention to critical issues and what their role might be in helping protect and educate eye witnesses and citizen journalists who use those platforms.

The evolving role of social media companies during breaking news

Google, Twitter and Facebook all have disaster response teams who are building important tools and providing critical services for people to use in moments of natural disasters. Facebook launched its Safety Check feature in 2014, Twitter Alerts launched in 2013, and Google’s crisis response team has been active since at least 2010 when it helped with the response to the Haiti earthquake.

However, these platforms aren’t only places people go for information after a disaster, they are also the places people go to share photos, videos and updates during breaking news. Part of ensuring that people have access to high quality, trustworthy information in times of crisis is helping people share accurate info from the start and stemming the flow of misinformation.

To that end, in the past I have encouraged newsrooms to “train their communities in verification, news literacy, and eyewitness media” because I believe that community engagement can lead to better citizen reporting, safer eyewitnesses on the ground and an audience better prepared to spot bad information.

There is more we could be doing to ensure the safety of eyewitnesses and ensuring they know their rights when they are documenting breaking news — and platforms could be important partners in that work.

Organizations like WITNESS have created extensive training, guides and even apps that help eyewitnesses stay safe and capture verifiable videos. But most consumers aren’t going to have specialized apps on their phones, nor will they have been exposed to training that can prepare them for what it is like to be part of a breaking news event. We need to meet them where they are.

Educating and engaging potential eyewitnesses

What if Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, YouTube and others helped inform people more directly about their right to record? About how to stay safe? Or about how to respond when newsrooms want to use your footage or photos? What if user safety and rights were built into the UI of these networks and apps?

I don’t see this happening in real time, as breaking news unfolds. That would likely be too chaotic and uneven. Instead, the focus would be on reaching people with a public awareness style campaign focused on eyewitness media.

As more and more people take up the tools of media-making and share photos and videos, could social networks target them with this kind of information? YouTube and others already notify you about your responsibilities under copyright law whenever you upload a video. What if they also helped notify you about your right to record? Would Periscope create an optional training to be embedded in their app that people could take? I’m sure there are more elegant solutions than these, but the idea here is to expand digital literacy and ‘superpower’ eyewitness media by helping people use these apps and tools better.

Given the unique legal nuances around many of these issues, state by state in the US and in different countries around the world, platforms might worry about providing legal advice or being held liable for providing safety information. That is why it makes sense to work with partners and link to resources that already exist.

Organizations like WITNESS, the ACLU and Reporters Without Borders have already done the hard work of creating amazing tools and resources. Let’s find creative ways to get that information into the hands of more people.

Reaching creators and consumers

Real-time social media has meant that, while we may not all be eyewitnesses, we are increasingly witnessing events unfold in real time, and sorting through the often confusing and inaccurate reports which go along with that. Beyond helping educate potential eyewitnesses about their safety and rights, there are creative ways that platforms could also help cultivate more skeptical consumers and slow the spread of misinformation.

Within minutes of breaking news hitting Twitter, someone in my network usually shares On The Media’s “Breaking News Consumer Handbook”, a cheat sheet designed to help people sort out fact from fiction. Those tweets often get a good number of retweets, but imagine if Twitter donated sponsored tweets to partner organizations to amplify that kind of news literacy during breaking news. Similarly, Facebook could donate promoted posts to help spread verified information or make sure a debunk spreads as far as the original rumor. Something similar could be done with Google Ad Words.

On The Media’s “Breaking News Consumer Handbook

These are all tools the platforms already have at their disposal. Working with trusted partners, we could reimagine those commercial products as ways of ensuring critical information reaches the broadest possible audience during breaking news.

How we create and consume information around disasters, attacks and conflicts is in flux but there is no doubt that social media companies are going to be paying a central role in the work for a long time to come.

The fact each of them has created emergency response teams is notable and admirable. Helping journalists, eyewitness and the public stay safe and understand their rights is a logical extension of that work.


Josh Stearns is founder of Verification Junkie, associate director for the public square program at @DemocracyFund and a member of First Draft, a coalition of experts sharing top tips and training in how to handle eyewitness media.

Follow First Draft on Twitter and Facebook for more updates, advice guides and case studies.

Next Story — My Next Adventure: Journalism’s Wicked Problems and Democracy’s Complex Systems
Currently Reading - My Next Adventure: Journalism’s Wicked Problems and Democracy’s Complex Systems

My Next Adventure: Journalism’s Wicked Problems and Democracy’s Complex Systems

A snapshot of the local news and participation systems map from Democracy Fund.

After two amazing years working with local journalists across New Jersey and New York City on creative experiments in revenue models and community engagement this is my last week at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

For the past two years I’ve had the good fortune to work with Molly de Aguiar and Chris Daggett at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation where they have been pioneering an “ecosystem model” for supporting and strengthening local news. Through the Local News Lab project, which was funded by the Knight Foundation, we have built a more connected, inclusive and responsive news ecosystem in New Jersey. We’ve experimented with new revenue ideas, community engagement efforts, philanthropy models and groundbreaking collaborations. We didn’t just fund good ideas, we looked for people and projects that could help make structural change in local news.

We have learned a lot (check out our lessons learned here). All of that work is going to continue — stay tuned for big things to come from Molly and the Local News Lab.

In 2011 I wrote a blog post calling for a “systems approach to remaking journalism.” In New Jersey the Dodge Foundation is showing that this approach has promise. Their ecosystem approach is rooted in the idea that the challenges facing journalism are not individual problems but rather complex systems of economics, technology, policy, culture and more. Jay Rosen has called these “wicked problems,” and they are just the sort of problems I love to work on.

One of our partners in the work of the Local News Lab has been the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that the American people come first in our democracy. Democracy Fund focuses on engaged citizens and vibrant media, supporting innovations and institutions that help people understand and participate in the democratic process.

Starting in June I’ll be joining the Democracy Fund as Associate Director for the Informed Participation program, helping lead their local journalism work and investments around the country.

I’ll be building on our lessons from the work in New Jersey and exploring new ways we can intervene in the complex systems that shape journalism and the public square today. This is a natural evolution of the work I’ve been doing because systems thinking is at the core of how the Democracy Fund approaches its work. To get a sense for what that means, check out this local news and civic participation map that Democracy Fund recently published. It will serve as a starting point for the work ahead. And because the Democracy Fund is supporting the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s innovative work, I get to continue to work with them as an ally and partner.

At Democracy Fund we’ll be looking to do this work in partnership with local communities who want to think big about new ways to support vigorous local news, accountability reporting and a robust public square. I’m thrilled to be joining the Democracy Fund at this critical moment for our politics and our press.


Josh Stearns is a journalist, community builder and civic strategist. Follow him on Twitter.

Next Story — What Improv Can Teach Us About Innovation and Community Engagement
Currently Reading - What Improv Can Teach Us About Innovation and Community Engagement

What Improv Can Teach Us About Innovation and Community Engagement

photo by World Domination Designs, used via creative commons

With the debut of Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globes investigation into the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal, there has been a lot of discussion about cinematic portrayals of journalism.

I wanted to talk with someone who has worked in both theatre and newsrooms about what acting could teach journalists. Amanda Hirsch was the director for PBS.org and has consulted on projects with NPR, TED and the Paley Center for Media amongst many others. She is also a celebrated speaker and improv star, who was voted a SXSW audience favorite for a talk she and her husband gave about improv lessons for freelancers.

We discussed the similarities and differences between theatre and journalism, and what improv could teach newsrooms about innovation, community engagement and telling new kinds of stories.

(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review)


JS: Improv is all about making things up and journalism is all about getting at the truth. How have you navigated these two kinds of work and what do you see as the intersection?

AH: My first reaction to this is, both improv and journalism are actually about listening to find the truth.

Illustration by Studio Beerhorst, used via creative commons

Jokey improv is about making things up — “we’re on the moon, wheee!” — but the best, most sophisticated improv comedy is really about patiently discovering, with your partner, the truth that is already there on stage, from the moment the actors make thier first choices.

For example: We step on stage. You register my body language, my facial expressions. I do the same. I register how I feel about you, and you do the same. One of us says something. Line by line, we go from there… we’re inventing something, but it’s more like the old Michelangelo quote about removing clay to find the sculpture that’s been there all along. In the best improv, you aren’t scrambling with this kind of chaotic energy to create… you’re communing with other actors to reveal the dynamic that exists between you.

In that way, improv really is about listening with all of your senses. The same is true for journalism. You can’t just come in with your own ideas about what happened, or what should happen — you have to put your own agenda aside, as much as a person and focus on listening to the community you cover, your source… the story.


JS: Of course, journalists often come into communities with narratives already in mind that shape our coverage. In journalism as in improv, our stories are often circumscribed by our lived experiences. The challenge and the possibility of real engagement is the possibility of being pushed beyond those experiences to something new. Real engagement with another person — on stage or in the community — can create the conditions for discovery.

One of the central tenants of improv that reinforces that sense of discovery is “Yes, and…” can you talk a bit about what that phrase means?

AH: Absolutely. Improv has become so buzzed-about in the business press in the last decade, and “yes, and” is the improv concept that seems to get the most attention.

“Yes, and” means, you should accept what your scene partner offers, then add to it. So if I say “That was a great party”… your response should accept the truth I’ve put forward, and expand the scene from there. “Yes, that was a great party, and please never let me drink tequila again” — not necessarily comedy gold, but at least we’re creating a shared reality. That’s what “yes, and” lets us do: create a shared reality, on the fly, together.

“Yes, and” has huge applications for innovation in newsrooms.

JS: I can see how this idea intersects with notions of listening mentioned above, and of empathy. But in journalism we “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” We are taught to be skeptical, to get multiple sources, to rarely take thing on face value. How do we square “Yes, and…” with that?

AH: Well, saying “yes, and,” doesn’t necessarily mean you like or even agree with what the other person said. What it means is, you recognize that you need to work together to create something, and you are going to build on the information the other person has shared.

So, yes-and’ing a source doesn’t mean buying everything they tell you, hook, line and sinker. Honestly, “yes, and” might mean verifying what your source tells you by talking to three additional sources — “yes, Source A tells me she loves me, and, Sources B, C and D tells me she does not.” To simply accept what your source tells you at face value would just being saying “yes.” Additional verification is the “and.”


JS: I can see how that opens up new kinds of possibilities. Outside the reporting process, how might “Yes and” be applied to how newsrooms operate, how we honor voices that don’t always get heard, how we build new kinds of storytelling or news products?

AH: “Yes, and” has huge applications for innovation in newsrooms. Let’s say you’re in a brainstorming meeting about designing a new mobile app. Someone throws out an idea you think is just really terrible. Well, be that as it may, they’re in the room for a reason. They’re a stakeholder. You aren’t in a world where you get to design this thing solo.

Illustration by ISKME, used via creative commons

So…try to say “yes, and” to their idea by accepting that it’s out there and building upon it. As my husband, Jordan, puts it, too many people approach creativity as a zero-sum game: If your idea is good, mine can’t be. So we compete to be the smartest, the best. I think the culture is shifting to be more collaborative, in all parts of our lives, but there is still this instinct to differentiate ourselves by saying “no, but.”

If nothing else, “yes and” helps you build goodwill and trust between teammates, and without that, true innovation really isn’t possible. And maybe something that comes out of exploring that idea you think is really terrible will actually be worthwhile. “Yes, and” really is an incredible tool for unlocking the full creative potential of a group of people. It’s hard because it means letting go of ego… letting go of the idea that you’re the smartest person in the room.


JS: It seems like “Yes, and” — focusing on building on people’s ideas not trying to refute them — would also help make more space for junior and mid-level staffers to have a say in the design and innovation process. I think you and I both know a lot of young journalists working in newsrooms who feel like their ideas aren’t respected or aren’t even heard. So “Yes, and” — and improv more generally — can make room for more diverse voices inside newsrooms as well as outside them.

Absolutely. And of course, management sets the tone, but people at every level really can lead by example. People in our workshops say, “I need those jerks over in accounting to take this workshop, so they can start yes-and’ing, too” (that’s just an example — I don’t mean to pick on accountants. My dad is an accountant, I love accountants. But I digress.) Yes, in an ideal world, we’d all get the principles of improv emblazoned in our minds at birth! For now, we need to settle for leading by example, even if that means leading up.

In improv circles, a lot of times we’ll remind each other to treat everyone on stage with you as a genius. It’s not about being a humanitarian; it’s just pragmatic. It leads to better scenes. If you’re onstage judging everything everyone else is doing, the audience sees it. They’re bored. But if you “yes, and” the heck out of your scene partners, even if you have 20 years of experience and they have 2… you can actually create a great show.

Illustration by ISKME, used via creative commons

JS: I’ve been writing a lot about how we can build journalism with community, not just for it. How could Improv shape the way we think about co-creating journalism with our communities? What tools or values might it offer for that kind of work?

I think it means being willing to treat members of the community as scene partners — truly listening to them and showing them respect by yes-and’ing the ideas they share. This is hard; it’s tempting to offer opportunities for input, say a polite “thank you,” and then proceed with business as usual. But this isn’t real engagement…and it doesn’t offer the potential for collaborative creative genius that improv techniques enable.

Let’s take an example. Maybe you publish a story, and in the comments, you see people saying, “Yes, this is true, but you missed this entire dimension of things. What about X?” Well, as a news outlet, you now have an opportunity to be responsive (to engage) and to say — either in a comment or in a subsequent story, or both — “We hear you. Let’s talk more about X.” Listening to the community helps inform coverage, the way listening to your scene partner informs the scene.


JS: Right. And it doesn’t have to wait until the comment sections. In conversations, at events, on social media — “Yes, and…” is a reminder to be open, to respect that people are experts in their own experiences and have something to share that we can learn from and build on. I could see newsrooms and journalism schools employing improv as a way of teaching engagement and prepping for outreach in communities. Anyone who has done community work knows that it can be messy and tough at times. Practicing for those conversations in advance isn’t a bad idea.

AH: “Practice” is the key word there. We aren’t necessarily conditioned to say “yes, and.” So we need to practice.

Josh Stearns is the director of Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He minored in theatre and dabbled in improv a long time ago. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearns.

Amanda Hirsch is the founder and president of Good Things Consulting and author of the Having it Alt blog. She and her husband are the founders of Think Improv. Follow her on Twitter at @amanda_hirsch.

Next Story — Lessons From the New York Times Super Tuesday Hoax: Five Ways to Spot Fake News
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Lessons From the New York Times Super Tuesday Hoax: Five Ways to Spot Fake News

(This article was originally published by the First Draft News Coalition. Check out their site for guides, tips and tools for debunking misinformation online.)

On the eve of Super Tuesday, a New York Times article made the rounds on social media reporting that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. The only problem: It was fake.

The New York Times released a statement and others debunked the fake on Tuesday, as people were headed to the polls, but by that point the fake article “had been viewed more than 50,000 times, with 15,000 shares on Facebook,” the Times reported.

This is just the most recent in a long line of fake news reports which have swept through social media in recent years. Last year Twitter’s share price spiked after a fake Bloomberg article claimed that Google was considering buying the social media platform. In 2012, Wikileaks created a fake New York Times op-ed from then-Times-editor Bill Keller defending Wikileaks in what appeared to be a change of position from his earlier statements about the group. The fake was so convincing that even New York Times journalists were sharing it on Twitter.

This kind of hoax isn’t limited to the web. Just a few weeks ago a pro-Palestinian group handed out fake versions of the New York Times to highlight what it believes is the Time’s bias against Palestinians. In 2008 the Yes Men distributed thousands of copies of a 14-page fake New York Times all over New York City. The paper declared the end of the Iraq war on the front page.

The Yes Men’s Fake New York Times — photo by Steve Lambert, of the Yes Men

Online it is increasingly simple for activists and pranksters to spoof the look and feel of a major news website and these fakes can have real impacts from Wall Street to the voting booth. However, in each of these past cases there has been some clear giveaways that are instructive for anyone who wants to spot fakes in the future.

Here are five ways to make sure you don’t get duped by a fake website.

1. Check the URL

URL shorteners on social media often hide a website’s actual domain address which makes it all the more important to click through to a full page. Even the previews that appear on Facebook and Twitter can be made to look convincingly like actual news articles and brands. But sometimes even after you click through to the page the URL can be customized to fool people.

The URL for the fake Wikileaks op-ed from Bill Keller was the first clue that something was amiss. The URL was “opinion-nytimes.com,” when in fact the real opinion section of the Times is located at “nytimes.com/pages/opinion.” The practice of tweaking URLs with words like this is common in phishing attacks designed to steal personal information. (The Freedom of the Press Foundation has a guide to spotting phishing attempts.)

In the case of the fake Bloomberg article about a possible Twitter sale, the piece was housed at “bloomberg.market,” which is not a URL used by Bloomberg. With the proliferation of new top level domains (.limo, .news, etc…) it is all the more important to double check the URL before sharing any web page.

Screenshot of the Fake Bill Keller op-ed

2. Check the style

No matter how well a person or organization try to mimic the style and design of a news organization there are often small but meaningful mistakes that can raise red flags.

In its coverage of the Bloomberg fake the New York Times wrote “Close scrutiny, however, flagged a number of questionable elements in the piece. The name of Twitter’s former chief, Dick Costolo, was misspelled. The grammar seemed off. The byline was Stephen Morris, who covers British banks.” And at the time Bloomberg reporters pointed out “the article was rife with violations of the news organization’s often-rigid writing style commandments.”

In the case of the fake Keller op-ed, things were a little trickier because Wikileaks actually drew from real quotes from a recent interview Keller had done with Mathew Ingram. However, Glenn Greenwald, writing in a post-mortem about the fake noted that it included “extraordinary claims” about the government’s attacks on Wikileaks that he hadn’t heard before. Checking on those claims led Greenwald to spot the fake (and an accompanying fake PayPal blog post). Ernie Smith of the ShortFormBlog put together a nice side-by-side comparison of the fake Keller piece with a real Keller piece.

The fake Bill Keller opinion piece, created by WikiLeaks

3. Find out who shared it

Who first shares something can tell you a lot about the origins and the legitimacy of a webpage. Use Twitter’s advanced search, Facebook’s graph search or a tool like Storyful’s Multisearch plug-in to search for a link, then sort results chronologically to find the earliest occurrence on a particular platform, or limit the search to a particular time frame.

Security researcher Chris Soghoian pointed out that some of the first accounts to tweet the fake Bill Keller Wikileaks article were Wikileaks and Anonymous. Others pointed to an account called @Block_NYTimes which shared the link early on. All of these things should have been red flags. However, you also have to beware fake Twitter accounts.

In this case @NYTKeller, featuring Bill Keller’s photo and bio, tweeted the article but Bill Keller’s actual Twitter account was actually @billkeller2014. (Related: Find out how to spot hoax accounts and fake eyewitnesses on Twitter.)

4. Do a WhoIs search

WhoIs data can reveal details about who registered the domain name, their address and even their contact information. You can do a WhoIs search from the ICANN site and here are some tips on WhoIs searches for journalists.

But sometimes you have to dig deep to find what you are looking for. Back in 2012 when the fake Keller op-ed came out BetaBeat wrote: “Whoever registered it was also incredibly detail-oriented: the WhoIs information for the fake site notes the registrant as ‘Ellen Herb,’ the same person who is listed as the registrant for the real nytimes.com URL. Sneaky!”

BetaBeat kept digging though, and discovered that “opinion-nytimes.com possesses the same NIC handle as ‘blocknytimes.org,’ another site registered on Gandi, a French domain hoster.” The fake PayPal blog post was also linked to that NIC handle. Finally, opinion-nytimes.com was registered in March, the same month the @Block_NYTimes Twitter account was started. Since the site didn’t go live until July it is clear Wikileaks had been planning this for some time.

Screenshot of Clone Zone page promoting fake website templates

5. Check the source code

Diving into the source code of a page is not for the faint of heart. You usually have to know what you are looking for and what you are looking at, but sometimes there are surprises hiding in plain view (from secret messages to job postings).

On his Online Journalism blog, Paul Bradshaw suggests that “Occasionally hoaxers intentionally leave clues here, but you can also find other clues such as the author, date, location, and technologies used.”

In looking into the fake Keller op-ed, Twitter user @shawnmer noticed that the image file used for the Facebook “Like” button was actually an image file from Olympic snowboarder Mark McMorris’ personal website. (The @shawnmer Twitter account is closed, but the original Tweet is archived in this Storify.)

The authors of the Data Journalism Handbook argue that “Even if they’re just copyright notices or mentions of the author’s names, these can often give important clues about the creation and purpose of the page.” Here is a quick guide to how to view the source code of a website in each browser and what to look for.

Screenshot of the Clone Zone crawler

In most cases you won’t need to go mining the HTML code to find out if a piece is a fake, there are enough other signs. The Warren/Sanders article was created using a site called Clone Zone. The other Clone Zone articles I looked at all included a small crawler at the bottom of the page pointing out that these are spoofed pages. However, my guess is most people saw the headline, framed in the familiar New York Times web design and shared it before ever glancing down at the bottom of the page.

In 2012 Craig Silverman described these sorts of fake news websites as “a hoax designed not just to fool, but to spread”. The New York Times responded to the fake quickly, releasing a statement about the article and it says that from here on out the nytimes.com URL has been blocked from future cloning. However, I found many other New York Times clones and hoaxes still posted on Clone Zone’s website — many with thousands of views. Clone Zone also offers featured templates for people to create fake BBC, NPR and even United Nation’s websites.

This isn’t a problem that is going to go away, so newsrooms, journalists and news consumers need to more skeptical and careful before sharing. Finding ways to engage readers and encourage skepticism without letting these kinds of hoaxes erode trust is going to be an ongoing negotiation.

(In 2012 I wrote a brief guide on spotting hoax websites. This post is based on some of that earlier work, but expanded and updated with new information and resources)


Originally published at firstdraftnews.com.

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