Hacker Journalism: The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome
What do you think of when you hear the term “hacker journalism”? If your thoughts turn immediately to the News of the World phone hacking scandal, you’re not alone. Because the word “hacker” has such negative connotations, and journalism isn’t exactly the respected fourth estate it once was, it would be easy to assume that nothing good could come from combining the two.
But hacker journalism really means applying programming skills to a journalist’s role of collecting and digesting information to present to a mass audience. New media technology simply allows hacker journalists to gather that information and present it to audiences in innovative and much more engaging ways.
It’s true these same programming skills can be used to obtain information illegally, but examples of good hacker journalism far outnumber bad. That is what I propose to show in my coverage of the 2013 South by Southwest Interactive Festival: an in-depth study of hacker journalism, consisting of three components.
Top 10 List
In preparation for the conference, I want to create an interactive top 10 list of my favorite hacker journalism projects. Obvious choices include PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter and the Texas Tribune’s Public Schools Explorer. But I would like to include some less well known projects as well. The inspiration for this component came from the New York Times’ Innovation Portfolio, a showcase of its data journalism projects. The Times’ portfolio uses Flash, but I would research other technologies to use for my top 10 list.
For the other two components of my project, I will need to reach out to many hacker journalists to find out who is attending the conference, if not speaking or sitting on a panel, and to request interviews. I plan to ask everyone I contact to vote on their personal favorites as an ice breaker, and I’ll take their votes into consideration when making my list.
Ideally, I would start working on this before the start of the semester and have it ready to go live a week or two before SXSW. That way, I can use the top 10 list to promote the other two components of my coverage.
From Mother Jones’ data gathering secrets to taking hacker journalism global to dirty secrets data visualization developers don’t want you to know, the SXSW PanelPicker is full of proposals focusing on data storytelling and hacker/programmer journalism. Of course I will tweet live updates, quotes, and photos from each panel I attend.
My blog will feature more in-depth highlights of each panel, along with photos and video clips of interviews with speakers and attendees. Broad categories for my blog coverage may include technologies and programming languages, developers’ best practices, and storytelling/journalistic issues. However, those categories may change depending on the final SXSW programming schedule.
As the main focus of my coverage, I want to produce a short documentary—five to 10 minutes—about hacker journalism and its impact on the news industry. In the months prior to the conference, I will contact and schedule interviews with hacker journalists attending the conference. In addition to attending and covering panels, I plan to use the conference as the backdrop for shooting my documentary footage. Ideally, I would edit and release the film online within a week or two after the conference. In the film, I will attempt to answer these questions:
- Are data visualizations and interactives “news”?
- Beyond data visualizations and interactives, how has hacker journalism changed news media for the better?
- What are the negative implications—legal and ethical—of hacker journalism? What can we do to ensure hacker journalists use their programming powers for good, not evil?
- Can hacker journalism help news organizations still carrying the baggage of foundering traditional media products make money?
Creating these deliverables, particularly the interactive top 10 list and the documentary, would afford me an opportunity to practice and build on the programming and multimedia production skills I have learned in my classes at Texas State. The independent nature of the project will force me to practice what is arguably the most important skill I can have in this field: the ability to figure it out myself. Last, but certainly not least, the finished products would make an impressive capstone to my graduate portfolio.
This project is of particular interest to me because I hope to work in online journalism after I graduate. To successfully complete my coverage, I will basically have to become an expert in hacker journalism. In the process of researching data storytelling projects, attending panels, interviewing experts, and gathering footage and background for my documentary, I would learn more about what it takes to be a successful hacker journalist than I could in any classroom.
New Media Concentration: Yes
Been to SXSW Before: Yes; 2012
Been in Program Since: 2011
Relevant TXST Courses: Issues in New Media; Online Media Design; Content Management Systems
Other Courses: n/a