That one time I decided to be a journalism student for a semester

What Annie the “appbot” taught me about teamwork and relatability in news.

As of last week, I completed my first-ever journalism course. Though I see a desperate need for outside help to resolve many of the issues facing the news media today, I came into the class eagerly, with an open mind and with a solution-oriented attitude. As a cognitive science student, I thought maybe I could help broaden certain perspectives. My only connection to journalism is my late grandfather, who was a journalist for a newspaper in Iran. So I do feel a bit of an emotional tie, albeit a small one, that makes me care enough to want to do something to help the industry. After this class, I’m sharing two pieces of advice for journalists: respect your teammates and make your content more relatable.

The directed research class I took focused on restoring trust in media through product design. The result was Annie the appbot, a news concierge that serves as both an aggregate of USC Annenberg Media and a chatbot that presents you more news and content through a distinct personality.

The process of creating Annie succeeded because everyone in the class — despite our varied backgrounds — were all on the same page. Though the class’ focus was on restoring audience trust in media, our teamwork taught me about a different kind of trust that I think news organizations could use more of: trust in your peers. Though journalism is often a team sport, such as when there is breaking news, it sometimes is not. We learned in class about how some news organizations originally made their digital departments nearly whole separate newsrooms. Even in 2017, some departments are still siloed. Why would you want to separate or demoralize anyone on your team? A team is a team because every member is equally as important, no matter their role. This kind of respect is so unbelievably important in order to make the entire unit work.

This kind of respectful teamwork, and advocating for something based on merit and not ego, played out when we all had to pitch ideas for the product that would eventually become Annie. I can confidently say that each idea was very unique. Any one of the six could have been chosen to become the final product, and it’s not unreasonable to think that any one of us could have been overly attached to our own idea. However, when it came to choosing the final product, I have to say it went over efficiently and productively. We all trusted each other that we knew what was best for the overall goal of the class, and we set any sort of personal bias aside. It’s something I’m very proud of, and I think it really shows in what we ultimately produced.

I think one part of the answer to the question of how to restore audience trust is increased relatability. It can come in the simplest of changes. For example, journalists should feel more comfortable writing and speaking as though they’re having a conversation. The current default journalistic rhetoric does not appeal to an audience that grew up on the internet and is immersed in internet culture. Listen to that audience, and experiment with your voice. It will not change the quality of the information in the slightest. Yes, the syntax and level of opinion has to be carefully regulated and kept in mind, but there is certainly wiggle room for someone to let their own personal voice shine through in their work.

Annie was designed with a unique personality in mind. We wanted to ensure that she has a consistent voice but also exhibits a spectrum of emotions. Through using her over time, you should be able to get a sense of who she is and what she is all about. This is crucial because if she feels and behaves like an actual person, you know what to expect out of her to an extent. We wanted to map out her personality traits as much as we could so we could predict how she would react to any situation. This would ensure we had a consistent brand identity for her as well as a deep personality, all of which I believe is as important as the functionality of the app itself because it helps make the vehicle for the news more relatable to our audience.

Related to this idea of relatability (😉) is something my classmate Giovanni Moujaes wrote about: encouraging and facilitating more conversations with your audience. If there’s one thing that can make people almost certainly feel unconnected and emotionally detached from something, it’s a one-way pipeline of information. Meaningful feedback and conversation builds a relationship that can hopefully lead to trust. I do realize this is easier said than done, but my extensive use of Reddit has taught me that more often than not, the community will behave appropriately and give productive feedback.

One idea we had for Annie was to have a response feature. This would allow the user to respond or react to an article and have it reach not only Team Annie but the student journalist who wrote the story. We want to establish a community feel. I mean, we are operating out of a university, after all. The work of community-building is half done. We want Annie to help take it the rest of the way so Annenberg Media can seamlessly become part of the USC community.

I know a journalist’s job is not easy. There is so much that so many people don’t even realize goes into reporting. I’m not surprised you get caught up in all that you do. But that’s why it’s important that you listen to those who are providing advice from an outsider and consumer perspective. We want to help — we don’t want to jack your style or challenge your life’s work for the sake of challenging it. We all want the same thing at the end of the day: to have a more accurately informed and educated general public.

Working on Annie was such an unexpected pleasure, and it really boosted my optimism toward a change in media conventions. We can really get there. It’ll take time, but I truly believe we can. But you have to listen to other experts in other fields. And I don’t mean listen to what they have to say and perhaps consider it when you’re applying your approaches. I mean really break the conventions of what you know about journalism and try and mold them in a new and exciting format. Designers want to help, this cognitive science student with an obsession for film making, music culture and social media social sciences wants to help desperately. I want to work with everyone, not against. But it starts with acknowledging the problem, and being open to any solution to help fix it. We can do this, guys.

I really believe it. Let’s make the world a better place. Thanks for reading, and if you’re a journalist and made it this far, thanks for listening. You are a good sport, and just listening to what I had to say is already a step in the right direction!