M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

The Reader’s Guide to Journalists

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Rule No. 51: When we describe something as “cutting edge,” we mean we don’t know how it works.

Read all the rules.

Written by Alex

March 31, 2014 at 2:37 pm

Can you scientifically quantify social media opinion?

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Over at NBCNews.com, we’ve started publishing daily charts tracking what people are saying about the presidential and vice presidential candidates on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s today’s for the weekend (click here for the full-size version):

Full social media chart Aug 26 2012

In my analysis, I write:

In recent weeks, Obama has generally led Romney by two to seven percentage points in national polls, which carefully select their samples to reflect Americans most engaged in the election and registered to vote.

The picture is different among Americans who have gone online to talk about the election, however — NBCPolitics.com’s analysis indicates that that narrower but more diverse sample of the country prefers Romney by 36 percent to 32 percent overall and by 51 percent to 49 percent when they’re compared head to head:

'Intent to vote' sentiment Aug 26 2012

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‘Alternative story telling’? No — just telling the story

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Sometimes reporting, editing and producing a breaking news story can be frustrating, because two new developments land on your doorstep before the last one has made it through the production process.

That’s what happened when a gunman entered a real estate office in Valparaiso, Ind., today and took about 10 hostages.  So in parallel with writing msnbc.com’s running main story, which you can read here, I also set up a Storify stream, immediately publishing news, images and local reaction as they came in. By the end of the day, it was a lively, largely unintermediated narrative of the entire drama as it unfolded:

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Written by Alex

May 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Surprise! People are sophisticated

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Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET: Over at msnbc.com, I have a piece looking at how people have followed the Trayvon Martin case online. This is one of the projects we’re doing with Crimson Hexagon’s Forsight social media tools, which are explained in this post.

Although you might get the impression from news coverage of the case that the American public wants George Zimmerman’s head on a stake, what the American public has been saying on Twitter and Facebook and in online forums is much more nuanced.

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The challenge of being a young journalist

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I envy the newly minted journalists entering our profession today. The tools at their disposal are so much more powerful that they were when I broke in 28 years ago at The Macon Telegraph in Georgia, which were: A notepad. And a pen.

But there’s one thing I wouldn’t trade from that era for all the avenues open to today’s younger journalists: the privilege of learning my craft in relative obscurity.

At The Telegraph, the circulation was a shade under 50,000. That was about the largest number of people I could reach. Today’s young journalist can immediately reach an audience that encompasses anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

That must be terrifying.

I’m reminded of this by the outrage that greeted the publication of a headline on ESPN.com over the weekend. It used an ethnic slur on a story about the New York Knicks’ out-of-nowhere star, Jeremy Lin, the first American-born player of Chinese descent to play in the NBA.

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Written by Alex

February 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Human editors matter, or: Pat Buchanan, call your lawyers!

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Google likes to generate a “quote of the day” atop some of its news searches. It doesn’t always work out well.

Because I was doing a story that involved Adolf Hitler, I of course did a news search for “hitler” to see who else might be reporting the story. This is what I got:

Written by Alex

February 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Hack or no hack?

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Over at msnbc.com, I’m tracking the attack on the CIA’s website, allegedly by Anonymous.

There’s an interesting language issue here. Several major news organizations are reporting that Anonymous “hacked” the CIA. Maybe; maybe not. The CIA isn’t commenting.

Initially, it appeared that a straightforward DDoS flood knocked out cia.gov. That’s not a “hack,” which implies some sort of infiltration of the host or its servers. It’s an attack from outside.

(You can read the Wikipedia definition for DDoS here.)

As of this writing, the site has been down more than four hours, which is an unusually long time for a robust agency to recover from a DDoS attack. That raises the possibility that the site remains down for some other reason. It could be some other kind of penetrating operation, which you could call a hack. Or it could yet have been a DDoS assault, and the CIA may be keeping the site down while it investigates and scrubs it for security holes. Not a hack.

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Written by Alex

February 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm

Can you even copyright porn in the first place?

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Over at msnbc.com’s Open Channel blog, I have a follow-up to a story I did last year explaining how law firms threaten to sue people who allegedly illegally download porn — and out them as porn fans in court documents — unless they settle for a few thousand bucks.

One of those people has a new counter-strategy: She argues in a suit filed this week that porn is obscenity, and obscenity is ineligible for copyright. Therefore, porn can’t be copyrighted, so even if she did download it without paying — which she denies — it’s not “piracy” in the first place:

Open Channel: Internet piracy suit asks: Can you even copyright porn?

Do you think that’s a legitimate argument? Read the full piece and let me know in the comments.

Written by Alex

February 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Reporting: For some churches, the Internet clicks; for others it doesn’t

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Over at msnbc.com, I have a long piece examining how religious institutions regard the Internet and especially social media:

[T]he Catholic Church has a long history of being an early adopter of new forms of media, going back to the 1920s, when Catholic priests pioneered radio evangelism, Campbell said.

At the same time, other religious institutions, especially traditional U.S. Protestant denominations, are still sorting through the challenges as well as the opportunities posed by the Internet, and particularly social media, according to church leaders and administrators.

“I think there’s a lot of groups trying to figure it out,” said John Davidson, a fundraising and ministry consultant for churchextension.org, which supports the ministry of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.

I talked to the Rev. Bobby Gruenewald, the “innovation leader” at LifeChurch.tv, a very sophisticated worldwide online ministry. He pinpoints the divide this way:

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Written by Alex

November 23, 2011 at 9:21 am

U.S. bars the public from seeing its data on doctors

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Cross-posted from msnbc.com’s Open Channel investigative blog.

The Obama administration has closed public access to its database of disciplinary action against doctors and other medical professionals, basically because reporters were getting too good at using it.

The Department of Health and Human Services compiles a National Practitioner Data Bank to centralize reports on malpractice cases and licensing board actions against individual doctors and health care companies. The idea is to make it harder for practitioners who’ve been hit with disciplinary actions or malpractice judgments to move to other states and get new licenses.

Four times a year, HHS has published a version of the database to the public. Because the database is supposed to be confidential, it’s scrubbed of names, addresses and other information that patients, lawyers and reporters could use to identify who’s in it. Still, because it provides a wealth of aggregate information, the NPDB quarterly summary has been a regular source of medical stories for a quarter-century. (As recently as June, the database was generating stories like this one, reporting that half of U.S. malpractice payments involve patients seen outside a hospital.)

Or at least it did until this month, when HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration added this sentence to the databank’s Web page:

The NPDB Public Use Data File is not available until further notice.

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Written by Alex

September 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

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