Tag Archives: Ryerson Journalism Research Centre

Local News Map Will Be First To Highlight Disparities in Coverage Across Canada

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

By Drew Bush

The impact of newsroom cutbacks, consolidations, and closures across Canada will be the focus of a new crowdsourced online geoweb map. The public can contribute to it now—with the full map available online this June.

“The idea of the map is it will allow us to gather data that we haven’t been able to gather on our own just because there is so much data out there,” said Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The map will be one part of a project (Election News, local information and community discourse: Is Twitter the new public sphere?) that’s headed by Jaigris Hodson, an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University. Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, helped design it with his graduate students in the Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SPICE Lab) using the GeoLive platform featured in previous Geothink research.

The project stems from a belief that Canadians who live in smaller cities, suburban municipalities, and rural areas typically have fewer media outlets to turn to for media coverage. For that reason, the project’s list of communities includes municipalities that have experienced a major disruption in local news sources (such as the closure of a daily newspaper or television station).

“What we did is we went back to 2008 and we tried to find all the instances where a local news organization had either closed or scaled back service or something new had been launched,” Lindgren told Geothink.ca in March while the map was being developed. “And so we populated the map as much as possible with information that we could find. But obviously there is lots and lots of other information out there that’s happened since 2008. And there’s probably lots of stuff going on right now that we don’t know about.”

“So the idea of the crowdsourcing is it will allow us to obviously draw upon the expertise and knowledge of the local news landscape of people who live in communities,” she added. “And they’ll be able to contribute those pieces of information to the map to make it more robust and comprehensive.”

The map can document gains, losses, service increases, and service reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets across the country. Now that the map is open to contributions, members of the public can add information about changes to the local news landscape in their own communities. The map’s administrators will verify user submitted content so that the map remains accurate.

For a closer look at this project and the map, check out our video where Corbett walks the user through a step-by-step view of the map and how to contribute, and Lindgren talks about the importance of this work.

Making the Map

Many researchers have looked at the critical information needs of communities on topics such as education, health, security and emergency responses, Lindgren said. This in turn led her to think about how we know if there is adequate media provision in Canadian communities, and where media have been lost or added. Still another related question is what online local news sites or social media have sprung up to fill any missing gaps.

Through attendance at last year’s Geothink Annual General Meeting in Waterloo, Lindgren was put in touch with Corbett. Eight months later, they had created a beta version of the map completed that included a couple hundred entries. Some emerging trends in the data include the consolidation and closure of community newspapers in Quebec and British Columbia.

“April had this idea that she wanted to better communicate information about how news media had changed over the period of the last eight years or so in Canada,” Corbett says of his meeting last May with Lindgren that began work by his lab to develop the map. “Because there really has been a lot of activity. Some newspapers have gotten larger. Others have closed down. There is a general move to web based media.”

His group has spent months ironing out the technical details of making this map presentable and ready for launch. Lindgren has provided feedback and advice on it through each stage.

“It’s been an awful lot more complicated than we originally intended precisely because there’s been so much activity and there’s so much difference in this type of activity across Canada,” Corbett added. “For example, we have four major types of media. We have newspaper, we have radio, we have TV, and we have the web. And then within each one of those different types, we have a whole series of other information we need to convey.”

For example, the newspaper category of the map alone contains free dailies, free weeklies, and paid newspapers. It also must contain a measure of how such types have either declined or increased in different localities through time.

“And so we see all of this sort of compounding levels of complexity around the data that we need to present,” he said. “Because of course one of the problems with maps—Maps to present information in an effective way require an awful lot of thought about the types of information being presented and how you actually present that type of information. It needs to be beautiful, it needs to be engaging, but it also needs to be informative.”

Corbett’s group has used color, typography, and more to make the map easily accessible to users. But he notes it is still a challenge to display all the transformations from January 2008 to the present. And the issue of time—as it’s portrayed in the map—will only become more important as users begin to use it to display events taking place during specific years.

Getting Involved

Lindgren and Corbett are both excited for the map’s launch and the public’s participation. Right now the map needs richer input on new online news sites launched in Canada, Lindgren said. This is an issue she plans to keep an eye on when users begin contributing in greater frequency to determine to what extent these organizations are viable and filling gaps left by the closure of local newspapers and television stations.

Lindgren also believes the map has wide appeal to specific communities including local governments, individual community members, and journalists. She points out that in coming weeks there is a number of ways for the public to get involved.

“First of all, when they add a piece of data, they can comment. Or they can comment on any other developments on the map that they want. And we’ve also incorporated a survey so that people can fill out the survey and tell us a little bit about where they go for their local news. Whether they feel adequately informed about various topics ranging from politics to education to other local issues.”

In case you missed it in the links above, find the map here to contribute your information: https://localnewsmap.geolive.ca/

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Out of the Ivory Tower: Conveying Open Data Research to the General Public – Summer Institute Day 3

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Day three of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute featured Ann Rauhala and April Lindgren leading a writing-skills incubator workshop.

By Drew Bush

On day three, the students at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute shifted gears from working with open data to thinking about the importance of conveying their work to the public. The day alternated between interactive lectures on how to write a strong Op-ed piece for a newspaper and hands-on group work where students tried their own hand at writing gripping prose.

Ann Rahaula, an associate professor Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, started the day by talking about the importance of disseminating one’s research to a broader audience. Then she covered how to structure opinions pieces. She was followed by Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, who discussed how to think and write clearly about one’s research.

“You are already or are entering a world, let’s face it, of great privilege,” Rahaula told students. “You are lucky enough to be one of those people who gets to work with ideas and do exciting things that keep your brains moving. You are very fortunate. Part of the responsibility that comes with that privilege is your ability to communicate those ideas.”

“Because after all if what’s going on in the academy is not available or understood or appreciated in the public, we would still be, I don’t know, living in caves and reading the Globe and Mail,” she added. “And nothing else. Communicating these ideas will dramatically enhance your career no matter what your career is. It essentially raises your profile. It is actually, literally awarded in the academy. It is seen as knowledge translation.”

Over the first two days of the institute, students learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. This last day of the institute represented the culmination of this work with open data.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one.

After her introduction to the importance of students being able to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, Rahaula detailed the ways in which students should be structuring any opinions that they write. The interactive lecture took students through examples of opinion pieces ranging from good to bad, with detailed analyses of what made them either effective or ineffective.

To see an excerpt of Rahaula’s talk on how to structure an Op-ed, check out this video:

Lindgren continued with a discussion of the important points students should consider in constructing any piece of writing to make it accessible and engaging to the reader.

“Sitting down to write does cause grief to quite a—well to most of us at some point in time,” Lindgren told students. “And a lot of us actually also think that there is something really mysterious and mystical about the writing process. You know, I have to be in the mood and the window blinds have to be down to a certain level, and the plants have to be in flower, and I have to have had this for breakfast, and then I can write.”

“Well, that’s maybe what you think,” she added. “But the truth is it’s like anything else. If you want to get better at it, you’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to practice it because you will improve with practice. Now having said all of that, there actually are some tricks of the trade to write in a clear and accessible way. And I’m going to talk about some of those today.”

For more of Lindgren’s talk, check out this excerpt:

For the students in attendance, the change in direction on the last day proved refreshing and taught them important new skills. For many, the nuanced and detailed coverage of best writing practices is not something that is often taught in their home departments. While working in groups, many mentioned learning important skills such as how to clearly organize an opinions piece, use Twitter to promote research, write captivating sentences, or pick the right time to propose an article to a publication.

“The third day, for me as a journalist, was like going back home from a trip,” Catalina Arango, from University of Ottawa, said. “I had the chance to bring all those new experiences and lessons and put them into practice using familiar tools. The almost colloquial tone of the presentations and the exercises allowed me to translate that ‘almost exclusively academic’ concept of open data to simple words. Words that people can understand and digest in order to see their real value.”

“I took skills learned in other latitudes and put them into action in my current context,” she added. “It was a super interesting experience.”

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

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Geothink students, faculty, and staff at the 2016 Summer Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article or the videos, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothink Student Evan Hamilton Explores Canadian Municipal Open Data and the Role of Journalism

headshot of Evan Hamilton

Geothink student Evan Hamilton recently defended his master’s thesis on Toronto data journalists’ use of open data.

By Naomi Bloch

Data journalists are some of the most active users of government open data in Canada. In his recently defended thesis, Evan Hamilton, a master’s student in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, examined the role of data journalists as advocates, users, and producers of open data.

Hamilton’s thesis, titled “Open for reporting: An exploration of open data and journalism in Canada,” addressed four research questions:

  1. Are open data programs in Ontario municipalities developing in a way that encourages effective business and community development opportunities?
  2. How and why do journalists integrate open data in reporting?
  3. What are the major challenges journalists encounter in gaining access to government data at the municipal level?
  4. How does journalism shape the open data development at both the policy level and the grassroots level within a municipality?

To inform his work, Hamilton conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with three key data journalists in the City of Toronto: Joel Eastwood at the Toronto Star, William Wolfe-Wylie at the CBC, and Patrick Cain at Global News. While open data is often touted as a powerful tool for fostering openness and transparency, in his paper Hamilton notes that there is always the risk that “the rhetoric around open data can also be employed to claim progress in public access, when in fact government-held information is becoming less accessible.”

In an interview with Geothink, Hamilton explained that the journalists made important distinctions between the information currently available on Canadian open data portals and the information they typically seek in order to develop compelling, public-interest news stories. “One of the big things I took away from my interviews was the differentiation that journalists made between Freedom of Information and open data,” said Hamilton. “They were using them for two completely different reasons. Ideally, they would love to have all that information available on open data portals, but the reality is that the portals are just not as robust as they could be right now. And a lot of that information does exist, but unfortunately journalists have to use Freedom of Information requests to get it, which is a process that can take a lot of time and not always lead to the best end result.”

Legal provisions at various levels of government allow Canadians to make special Freedom of Information requests to try to access public information that is not readily available by other means. A nominal fee is usually charged. In Toronto, government agencies generally need to respond to such requests within 30 days. Even so, government responses do not always result in the provision of usable data, and if journalists request large quantities of information, departments have the right to extend the 30-day response time. For journalists, a delay of even a few days can kill a story.

While the journalists Hamilton interviewed recognized that open data portals were limited by a lack of resources, there was also a prevailing opinion that many government agencies still prefer to vet and protect the most socially relevant data. “Some were very skeptical of the political decisions being made,” Hamilton said. “Like government departments are intentionally trying to prevent access to data on community organizations or data from police departments looking at crime statistics in specific areas, and so they’re not providing it because it’s a political agenda.”

Data that helps communities

In his thesis, Hamilton states that further research is needed to better understand the motivations behind government behaviours. A more nuanced explanation involves the differing cultures within specific municipal institutions. “The ones that you would expect to do well, do do well, like the City of Toronto’s Planning and Finance departments,” Hamilton said. “Both of them provide really fantastic data that’s really up-to-date, really useful and accessible. They have people you can talk to if you have questions about the data. So those departments have done a fantastic job. It’s just having all the other departments catch up has been a larger issue.”

An issue of less concern to the journalists Hamilton consulted is privacy. The City’s open data policy stresses a balance between appropriate privacy protection mechanisms and the timely release of information of public value. Hamilton noted that in Toronto, the type of information currently shared as open data poses little risk to individuals’ privacy. At the same time, the journalists he spoke with tended to view potentially high-risk information such as crime data as information for which public interest should outweigh privacy concerns.

Two of the three journalists stressed the potential for data-driven news stories to help readers better understand and address needs in their local communities. According to Hamilton’s thesis, “a significant factor that prevents this from happening at a robust level is the lack of data about marginalized communities within the City.”

The journalists’ on-the-ground perspective echoes the scholarly literature, Hamilton found. If diverse community voices are not involved in the development of open data policies and objectives, chances for government efforts to meet community needs are hampered. Because of their relative power, journalists do recognize themselves as representing community interests. “In terms of advocacy, the journalists identify themselves as open data advocates just because they have been the ones pushing the city for the release of data, trying to get things in a usable format, and creating standard processes,” Hamilton said. “They feel they have that kind of leverage, and they act as an intermediary between a lot of groups that don’t have the ability to get to the table during negotiations and policy development. So they’re advocating for their own interests, but as they fulfill that role they’re advocating for marginalized communities, local interest groups, and people who can’t get to the table.”

Policy recommendations

Hamilton’s research also pointed to ways in which data journalists can improve their own professional practices when creating and using open data. “There needs to be more of a conversation between journalists about what data journalism is and how you can use open data,” Hamilton said. “When I talked to them, there was not a thing like, ‘Any time you use a data set in your story you cite the data set or you provide a link to it.’ There’s no standard practice for that in the industry, which is problematic, because then they’re pulling numbers out of nowhere and they’re trusting that you’ll believe it. If you’re quoting from a data set you have to show exactly where you’re getting that information, just like you wouldn’t anonymize a source needlessly.”

While Hamilton concentrated on building a picture of journalists’ open data use in the City of Toronto, his findings resulted in several policy recommendations for government agencies more broadly. First, Hamilton stressed that “as a significant user group, journalists need to be consulted in a formal setting so that open data platforms can be better designed to target their specific needs.” This is necessary, according to Hamilton, in order to permit journalists to more effectively advocate on behalf of their local communities and those who may not have a voice.

Another recommendation is aimed at meeting the needs of open data users who have different levels of competency. Although he recognizes the challenges involved, in his concluding chapter Hamilton writes, “Municipal governments need to allocate more resources to open data programs if they are going to be able to fulfill the needs of both a developer class requiring technical specifications, and a general consumer class that requires tools (for example. visualizations and interactives) to consume the data.”

Finally, Hamilton recommends that municipalities engage in more formal efforts “to combat internal culture in municipal departments that are against publishing public information. Data should be viewed as a public service, and public data should be used in the public interest.”

If you have any questions for Evan, reach him on Twitter here: @evanhams


Evan Hamilton successfully defended his Master of Information thesis on September 29 at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. His work was supervised by Geothink co-applicant researcher Leslie Regan Shade, associate professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. Other committee members included University of Toronto’s Brett Caraway and Alan Galey (chair), as well as April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, a Geothink partner organization.

 Abstract

This thesis describes how open data and journalism have intersected within the Canadian context in a push for openness and transparency in government collected and produced data. Through a series of semi-structured interviews with Toronto-based data journalists, this thesis investigates how journalists use open data within the news production process, view themselves as open data advocates within the larger open data movement, and use data-driven journalism in an attempt to increase digital literacy and civic engagement within local communities. It will evaluate the challenges that journalists face in gathering government data through open data programs, and highlight the potential social and political pitfalls for the open data movement within Canada. The thesis concludes with policy recommendations to increase access to government held information and to promote the role of data journalism in a civic building capacity.

Reference: Hamilton, Evan. (2015). Open for reporting: An exploration of open data and journalism in Canada (MI thesis). University of Toronto.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Journalism: Storytelling in the Geodata Age

By Naomi Bloch

The rise of more accessible geospatial web tools along with expanding sources of open data have fostered a potent—if somewhat techno-utopian—civic vision. For those immersed in understanding this new digital landscape, one question often surfaces: who’s truly putting these resources to use?

The most reliable answer is perhaps an obvious one. “Journalists are making huge use of mapping and geodata for storytelling, for the visualization of stories, and for investigative reporting purposes,” said April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, a Geothink partner organization.

As a scholar, Lindgren’s own research employs data mapping techniques to examine the geography of news coverage and the role of Canadian media in society. “Maps have actually been quite a powerful tool for us to explore patterns of local news and understand how it works. It opened up a whole new way of getting at and understanding the data because we were able to visualize it.

“Before that, it was the old problem of columns and reams of numbers” Lindgren said. “But being able to map it allowed us to show geographically, yes, most of the news coverage is focused on downtown Toronto. So why is that? And what are the implications of not doing much coverage in other areas of the city? And furthermore, we mapped the types of topics. So what does it mean when most of the news that they publish about certain areas is crime coverage? What does that do in terms of the geographic stereotyping?”

Computer-assisted reporting revisited

Lindgren notes that the use of mapping and data analysis for actual journalistic purposes is not a new phenomenon. Over twenty years ago, in 1993, Miami Herald research editor Steve Doig won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative coverage of Hurricane Andrew’s aftermath in Florida. The year prior, Doig and his colleagues spent several intensive months processing and evaluating two data sets—one that helped to map out property damage caused by the hurricane and another documenting wind speeds at different locations and times throughout the storm. “They noticed from using mapping that the damage was much more extensive in certain areas than in others, and then they started trying to figure out why that was, because weather-wise it was the same storm,” Lindgren explained.

What Went Wrong > Miami Herald, December 20, 1992 > Page 1

“What Went Wrong > Miami Herald, December 20, 1992 > Page 1” (originally published Dec. 20, 1992). Flickr photo by Daniel X. O’Neil, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Further investigation unveiled that several different developers had been responsible for real estate construction in different regions. “And it led them to a conclusion and a very powerful piece of journalism showing that it had to do with the building standards of the different developers,” said Lindgren. “So that was one of the early uses of mapping and data journalism, showing what a useful tool it could be.”

As researchers raise questions about the skills and motivations that enable citizen engagement with open data and geospatial technologies, journalism schools are increasingly recognizing the need to integrate a formal understanding of data journalism into the curriculum.

At the 2014 Geothink Annual General Meeting, Lindgren met a fellow researcher with complementary interests—Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Toronto-based Neptis Foundation. The aim of Neptis has been to apply the unique capabilities of mapping and spatial analysis to help decision makers and the public understand regional issues in the Greater Toronto Area. The Geothink encounter led to the development of a Neptis-led geodata workshop for senior-level students enrolled in Ryerson’s journalism school, exposing students to some statistics basics as well as the various challenges of working with spatial data to develop meaningful stories.

“Getting the data into a usable form, I think, is probably the biggest challenge technically for journalists,” said Lindgren. “Although the skills are rapidly increasing and we’re training our students to do that.”

At Ryerson, undergraduates are required to take an introductory digital journalism course that critically engages with social media and citizen journalism along with new forms of multimedia and alternative storytelling methods. A separate “visualizing facts” elective course aims to provide hands-on experience with various data visualization techniques including mapping, while reinforcing numeracy skills (something that, historically, journalists have not been known for).

Data’s fit for purpose?

CBC News Pledge to Vote Map

CBC News’s crowdsourced, interactive “Pledge to Vote” map, part of their 2015 Canada Votes coverage.

In recent years Canadian data journalists have garnered international attention both for their creative uses of geodata and their involvement in the push for open access to government information. “One of the big problems is the availability of data,” Lindgren said. “What’s available? How good is it? How hard do you have to fight for it? Is it really available through an open data source or do you have to go through Freedom of Information to get it?”

While increasingly media outlets are exploring the possibilities of engaging the public to create crowdsourced content by volunteering their geodata, the data sets that journalists tend to be interested in—ideally, data that can support rich, informative stories relevant to public interest—are not typically collected with the journalist in mind. In particular, government data sources have often been generated to support internal administrative needs, not to address transparency and accountability concerns per se. Data input decisions may not be documented, and agencies may “silently” post-process the information before distributing it to journalists or the greater public. This makes the process of learning how to clean up inconsistent, non-standardized data developed for a very different audience a particularly important skill for journalists to acquire. Only then can a journalist build an understanding of the data’s patterns and the stories they can support.

“You’re only as good as your data,” Lindgren emphasized. “In some ways the act of journalism allows you to test the data and see how good it is. Because the data may be telling you one thing, but then when you go out on the ground and you start interviewing and looking around you may find that what you’re seeing and hearing doesn’t seem to match what the data is telling you.

“So right away, as a journalist you’re going to be suspicious of that. And there are two places where this could be wrong. Either you’re talking to the wrong people or you’re not talking to a broad enough range of people—or there might be something wrong with the data.”

Verifying data accuracy is a time-honoured tradition

Lindgren shared the example of a colleague who was investigating the issue of slum landlords. The reporter asked the municipality to provide data on property standards complaints. Upon receiving and eventually mapping the data, the reporter and his colleagues made a surprising discovery. “They noticed that there was a section of the city that didn’t have any complaints. They thought that was odd, because they knew that there were a lot of rental areas and low-income areas there, with people living in somewhat vulnerable housing situations.”

Ultimately, the dissonance between the story on the ground and the story in the data led the reporter to go back to the city seeking further verification, and the nature of the problem soon revealed itself. It seems that a summer student had been in charge of aggregating and disseminating the data to the journalists when the information was requested, and that student had overlooked one section of the city.

While this particular story reflects human error during the communication phase rather than the data collection phase, Lindgren points out that the strong journalistic traditions of seeking verification and being suspicious of information sources puts the media in a unique position to evaluate data’s quality. “Verification is a fundamental element of journalism. That’s what we do that’s different from anybody who is just commenting out there online. The main issue is: is it verifiable, and what’s the public interest? That’s the starting point.”

Where public and private interests intersect

What constitutes “public interest” is a conversation that still needs to happen. The push for open data and the fact that personal information is increasingly accessible online has led parties both within and beyond government to raise concerns about how to strike the balance between privacy and transparency—and what the right balance may be.  Data sets often contain personal or identifying information. Cleansing the data of that information is not straightforward. Even when data appear on the surface anonymized, there are ever increasing opportunities to combine and process seemingly unrelated data sets in ways that can identify individuals and compromise personal information. As Geothink co-applicant researcher Teresa Scassa has addressed more than once in her work, this is not a theoretical problem but a reality that is already occurring.

Lindgren, however, said she does not see data journalism as giving rise to new types of ethical concerns for the media. “Obviously, a balance has to be struck. But the reality is that oftentimes the data is very generalized. It really depends on what the issue is and what the information is.

“The whole privacy issue is really a red flag, a lot of times, for journalists, because it can be used by governments as a pretext for not releasing information that governments just don’t want the public to know. The two reasons they don’t release information is privacy and violating commercial interests, and then the third reason is political consideration, but they can’t couch it in those terms.”

In terms of how journalists themselves strike that balance, Lindgren said this must be assessed on a case by case basis. “Basically, our job is invading people’s space, quite often. So we have to—and we do—make those judgment calls every day. The data is just another layer of that, or another area where we’d have to think about it and have those discussions.

“What it comes down to is you’re weighing, what’s the public interest in this information? There’s no hard and fast rule. It depends on what the information is.”

If you have any questions for April, reach her on Twitter here: @aprilatryerson

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Local News Research Project map of Toronto news coverage

Crosspost: How is your Toronto neighbourhood portrayed in the news? Check it out using these interactive maps

This post is cross-posted with permission from April Lindgren and Christina Wong at Local News Research Project. 

By April Lindgren and Christina Wong

Introduction
Concerns about how neighbourhoods are portrayed in the news have surfaced regularly in the Toronto area over the years. But are those concerns valid?

Interactive maps produced by the The Local News Research Project (LNRP) at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism are designed to help Toronto residents answer this question. The maps give the public access to data the research project collected on local news coverage by the Toronto Star and the online news website OpenFile.ca. The maps can be used by members of the public and researchers to:

  • get an overall sense of where news in the city is – and isn’t – covered
  • compare patterns of local news coverage by two different news organizations
  • examine the city-wide geographic patterns of reporting on crime, entertainment and other major news topics
  • examine news coverage in each of Toronto’s 44 wards including how often the news stories and photographs reference locations in a ward
  • see what story topics are covered in each ward

The maps are based on the Toronto Star’s local news coverage published on 21 days between January and August, 2011. Researchers have found that a two-week sample of news is generally representative of news coverage over the course of a year (Riffe, Aust & Lacy, 1993). The data for OpenFile.ca, which suspended publishing in 2012, were collected for every day in 2011 between January and August.

Click here to see the maps or continue reading to find out more about news coverage and neighbourhood stereotyping, how the maps work, and the role of open data sources in this project.

 

Local news and neighbourhood stereotyping
The decision to explore news coverage of Toronto neighbourhoods was prompted by concerns expressed by citizens and local politicians about how certain parts of the city are portrayed in the local media. Residents were furious (Pellettier, Brawley & Yuen, 2013), for instance, when Toronto Star columnist Rosie Dimanno referred to the city’s Scarborough area as “Scarberia” in an article about former mayor Rob Ford’s re-election campaign (DiManno, 2013). Back in 2007, then-mayor David Miller went so far as to contact all of the city’s news media asking them to cite the nearest main intersection rather than reporting more generally that a particular crime occurred in Scarborough (Maloney, 2007). In Toronto’s west end, the local city councillor suggested negative connotations associated with the Jane and Finch neighbourhood could be diffused by renaming it University Heights, but the idea was vehemently rejected by residents (Aveling, 2009).

A study that investigated how Toronto’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods were covered by the Toronto Star concluded that there was very little coverage of news in these communities (Lindgren, 2009). The study, which examined Toronto Star local news reporting in 2008, also found that crime tended to dominate the limited coverage that did take place and suggested the problem could be rectified not by ignoring crime stories, but by increasing coverage of other sorts of issues in those communities.

 

Exploring the maps
The interactive maps allow users to explore local news coverage in the City of Toronto. A sample of local stories and photographs from the Toronto Star (the local newspaper with the largest circulation in the city) and OpenFile.ca (a community-based news website) were identified and analyzed in 2011 to capture data about story topics and mentions of geographic locations.

These maps make the data available to the public in a way that allows users to explore and compare media coverage in different areas of the city. Users can zoom in on a neighbourhood and discover all of the locations referenced within a neighbourhood. Each point on the map represents a location that was referenced in one or more news items. Users can click on any of these points to see a list of news articles associated with each location (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Users can click each point to find out about the news articles that referenced the location
Figure 1. Users can click each point to find out about the news articles that referenced the location

By clicking within a ward boundary, users can also access a summary chart describing the breakdown by subject of all local news coverage in that ward. Users interested in the Scarborough area, for instance, can zoom into that area on the map and click on each Scarborough ward to see what sorts of stories (crime, transit, entertainment, sports, etc.) were reported on in that ward (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Users can click within a ward to access charts summarizing news coverage by topic
Figure 2. Users can click within a ward to access charts summarizing news coverage by topic

Users interested in how and where a particular news topic is covered can access separate interactive maps for the top five subjects covered by the two news sources. Figure 3, for example, shows all locations mentioned in crime and policing stories published by the Toronto Star during the study’s sample period.

Figure 3. Toronto Star coverage of crime and policing news
Figure 3. Toronto Star coverage of crime and policing news

The role of open data sources in creating these maps
A total of 23 pre-existing datasets were used to support the creation of these interactive maps including relevant open datasets that were publically available online in 2008. The datasets were used to populate a list of geographic locations in the GTA that had the potential to be referenced in local news stories. Each dataset was assigned unique numerical codes and all 23 datasets were appended to a geographic reference table that coders could search. The incorporated reference list of geographic locations and features allowed for a more accurate and efficient coding process: Coders entering information about spatial references in local news items were able to select many of the referenced geographic locations from the pre-populated list rather than entering the information manually. This improved accuracy because it helped prevent human error and also sped up the coding process.

We would have preferred to use more open data sources during the initial development of the database, but this wasn’t possible due to limited availability of datasets with the spatial attributes that make mapping possible. At that time, only two of the 23 datasets used (approximately 8.7% of the total) were available from open data sources in a format that included geography (such as shapefiles). Both files were obtained from the City of Toronto’s Open Data website. These limitations meant that the majority of the database relied on contributions from private data sources.

The situation has improved over time as more open government data become available in geographic file formats that support research with spatial analysis. As of mid-2015, six more of the 23 datasets (two federal, one provincial and three municipal) used in the database have become available. If we were creating the database today, a total of eight datasets or 34.8% of the initial database could be populated using open data sources (Table 1).

Table 1. Availability of open data sources
Available in 2008 when the database was created Currently available
Private sources 21 15
Government open data 2   (8.7% of database) 8 (34.8% of database)
Total # of datasets 23 23

 

Since 2008, the Government of Canada has launched its own open data portal, joined the Open Government Partnership alongside other countries supporting the release of open government data, and adopted the G8 Open Data Charter (Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, 2014). Provincial and municipal governments have made similar improvements to open data access. The Government of Ontario launched an online open data catalogue in 2012 and is currently developing an Open Data Directive to be implemented later this year (Fraser, 2015). The City of Toronto introduced its open data portal in 2009 and developed an Open Data Policy in 2012 (City of Toronto, n.d.).

As Table 1 suggests, however, further improvements are required to reduce barriers to research and innovation. A report from the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, for instance, recommended that the federal government provide data at smaller levels of geography, work together with different levels of government to establish standards and release data, and provide a greater variety of open data to reflect all government departments. The report noted that the release of open data can improve government efficiency, foster citizen engagement, and encourage innovation (Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, 2014). Academic researchers have argued that improvements in the availability of open government data would stimulate valuable research and outcomes with economic and social value (Jetzek, Avital & Bjorn-Andersen, 2014; Kucera, 2015; Zuiderwijk, Janssen & Davis, 2014). Journalists are also pushing for easier and greater access to data (Schoenhoff & Tribe, 2014).

 

Conclusion
Research conducted by the Local News Research Project was made possible by public funds and as such the data should be widely available. The interactive maps are an attempt to fulfill that obligation.

While the maps capture only a snapshot of news coverage at a fixed point in time, they nonetheless demonstrate the importance of geospatial analysis in local news research (Lindgren & Wong, 2012). They are also a powerful data visualization tool that allows members of the public to independently explore media portrayals of neighbourhoods and the extent to which some parts of a city are represented in the news while others are largely ignored.

Finally, this mapping project also illustrates how open government data can foster research and how much there is still to do in terms of making data available to the public in useful formats.

 

The Local News Research Project was established in 2007 to explore the role of local news in communities. Funding for this research has been provided by Ryerson University, CERIS-The Ontario Metropolis Centre and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

About the authors: Lindgren is an Associate Professor in Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and Academic Director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Christina Wong is a graduate of Ryerson University’s Geographic Analysis program. Initial work on the maps was done in 2014 by GEO873 students Cory Gasporatto, Lorenzo Haza, Eaton Howitt and Kevin Wink from Ryerson University’s Geographic Analysis program.

 

References

Avaling, N. (2009, January 8). Area now being called University Heights, but some call change a rejection of how far we’ve come. Toronto Star, p. A10.

City of Toronto. (n.d.). Open Data Policy. Retrieved from http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=7e27e03bb8d1e310VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

DiManno, R. (2013, July 6). Ford fest makes a strategic move. Toronto Star, p. A2.

Jetzek, T., Avital, M. & Bjorn-Andersen, N. (2014). Data-driven innovation through open government data. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research, 9(2), 100-120.

Fraser, D. (2015, May 1). Ontario announces more open data, public input. St. Catharines Standard. Retrieved from http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/2015/05/01/ontario-announces-more-open-data-public-input

Kucera, J. (2015). Open government data publication methodology. Journal of Systems Integration, 6(2), 52-61.

Lindgren, A. (2009). News, geography and disadvantage: Mapping newspaper coverage of high-needs neighbourhoods in Toronto, Canada. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 18(1), 74-97.

Lindgren, A. & Wong, C. (2012). Want to understand local news? Make a map. 2012 Journalism Interest Group proceedings. Paper presented at Congress 2012 of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference. Retrieved from http://cca.kingsjournalism.com/?p=169

Maloney, P. (2007, January 16). Mayor sticks up for Scarborough. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/news/2007/01/16/mayor_sticks_up_for_scarborough.html?referrer=

Pellettier, A., Brawley, D. & Yuen, S. (2013, July 11). Don’t call us Scarberia [Letter to the editor]. Toronto Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editors/2013/07/11/dont_call_us_scarberia.html

Riffe, D., Aust, C. F. & Lacy, S. R. (1993). The effectiveness of random, consecutive day and constructed week sampling. Journalism Quarterly, 70, 133-139.

Schoenhoff, S. & Tribe, L. (2014). Canada continues to struggle in Newspapers Canada’s annual FOI audit [web log post]. Retrieved from https://cjfe.org/blog/canada-continues-struggle-newspapers-canada%E2%80%99s-annual-foi-audit

Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates. (2014). Open data: The way of the future: Report of the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates. Retrieved from http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/hoc/Committee/412/OGGO/Reports/RP6670517/oggorp05/oggorp05-e.pdf

Zuiderwijk, A., Janssen, M. & Davis, C. (2014). Innovation with open data: Essential elements of open data ecosystems. Information Polity, 19(1, 2), 17-33.

Crosspost: Ryerson journalism and the Neptis Foundation partner to teach students data journalism

Neptis researcher and transportation engineer, Erin Toop, explains statistics during a Senior Reporting data journalism workshop at Ryerson University on Oct. 9.

By Prajakta Dhopade

I stared blankly at the rows upon rows of transportation statistics on my computer screen. My heart thudded in my chest, my eyes darted to my classmates’ faces. Did they get it? The numbers in the intimidating Excel spreadsheet I was scrolling through didn’t make much sense to me. I thought I’d left math class behind when I came to journalism school.

As the initial panic subsided and I actually took a moment to think about the variables in the data set before me, I began to see how they correlated, how the numbers might raise important questions that could lead to stories I can tell as a journalist.

Which of the 16 zones Toronto is divided into has the most cyclists and what does that say about cycling infrastructure in parts of the city? Has there been an increase in people cycling to work? The possibilities seemed endless.

My foray into data journalism occurred in Ryerson journalism instructor Gavin Adamson’s senior reporting class last month when researchers from the Neptis Foundation, a charitable, non-partisan research organization, came to share the results of an unreleased Transportation Tomorrow Survey (TTS) with students.

It was an opportunity for us to produce story ideas from a vast collection of data about the modes of transportation used in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

The Neptis-led data journalism workshop was organized after April Lindgren, director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre (RJRC), and Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation, met at the annual meeting of the Canadian Geospatial and Open Data Research Partnership this summer.

“We have partnered with other universities on previous projects and have always had a relationship with up-and-coming planners, [and] transportation engineers, so this seemed like a good fit—to introduce some young, up-and-coming journalists to an important data set that tells a lot about travel behaviour in the region,” said Burchfield.

The TTS is sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation Ontario and is a collaborative effort by regional governments and transportation associations to collect data revolving around how people travel in southern Ontario.

The survey sample is large, involving five per cent of the population in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).

Neptis shared summary data for 32 variables with us, meaning there were 1,500 possible comparisons to make during our analysis.

According to Burchfield, while the TTS has been used widely for several years for analysis surrounding land-use and urban development, for a long time it has been behind an archaic graphic user interface that limited its accessibility.

She says Neptis hopes to “break down a barrier of access” so that you don’t have to be an expert to draw conclusions from the TTS.

Erin Toop, transportation engineer and a Neptis researcher, was one of the presenters who condensed the complicated raw information into accessible spreadsheets for us to sift through.

The Neptis team members began their Oct. 9 presentation to my class with an explanation of why combiningstatistics with journalism is so important in seeing the big picture.

“With data journalism, you can actually assemble all the information that is out there and you’re able to see trends, you’re able to see how things come together… [and] share these stories in a meaningful way,” said Phinjo Gombu, a former Toronto Star urban affairs reporter who is now working with Neptis.

The presenters emphasized that the ability to decipher raw data and draw conclusions from the numbers is vital in determining the truth and holding politicians accountable.

As a journalism student, this exercise made me realize that having data journalism skills is a valuable asset to have in an industry that is starting to value digital literacy over much else—but our curriculum is only just shifting to accommodate what the job market demands.

Lindgren said the purpose of the partnership between Neptis and Ryerson’s journalism school was to explore different ways of teaching data journalism.

“It’s quite a challenging thing to do because of the technical requirements…You need to know how to work with spreadsheets and data, so there are several levels of complexity in terms of learning,” said Lindgren. “And also the data are so interesting and the story potential is so great that it was a real hands-on opportunity to do real stories with real data.”

While the Excel spreadsheets prepared by Neptis were much less intimidating than the original data format, we were still faced with the daunting task of tackling numbers and making sense of the 32 variables we were given to work with. Transportation modes, trip purposes, trip rates—how were we supposed to see the trends and their significance?

Adamson says that hands-on work with data helps break down numeracy fears, a critical hurdle for journalists, who often must sift through data evidence to analyze governmental and corporate decision-making.

After Toop gave us an overview of how the survey worked and what each variable represented, the class divided into groups to generate story ideas.

What really worked about the workshop is that we had the Neptis researchers to help us understand the feasibility of comparing variables while our journalism instructors encouraged us to think about how the data related to what’s happening in the city.

We learned to simplify our approach to finding patterns in the data and to think about what our lede would look like.

Fourth-year journalism student Marija Petrovic went on to use the TTS data to write a story for Adamson’s reporting class.

She discovered that cycling within Toronto has increased more than 50 per cent in the past four years as more people choose to ride their bikes to avoid congestion on city roads.

“I liked seeing data that was something that I see happening every day and that is such a big part of a Ryerson student’s life,” said Petrovic, who confessed she found the workshop challenging at times because math is not her forte.

We didn’t come close to taking the data and creating ambitious graphic visualizations like the images shown to us by the Neptis researchers — indeed, following through with the analysis would be another obstacle to tackle— but the exercise got us thinking.

“Although it was a good three-hour workshop, it wasn’t enough,” said Michael Chen, a fourth-year journalism student who attended the presentation.

He thinks it was a great opportunity to look at the data and ask questions but would like to have spent more time learning about Excel sheets and analyzing statistics.

I definitely agree that we needed more time to become comfortable with the numbers; even as I started to figure them out, I still found them overwhelming.

Finding patterns wasn’t easy either, but it was helpful receiving the Neptis researchers’ feedback because it was reassuring to realize we weren’t grasping at straws– that maybe we were onto something.

Adamson hopes to partner with Neptis again for other classes in the journalism program, including the masthead publication, The Ryersonian.

Prajakta Dhopade is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson. She is an aspiring online journalist with an interest in women’s issues. Her work has also been published by the Canadian Press.

Cross post from the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre