The Interview

December 20, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

“In my Journalism 101 class at Emerson College in Boston, we first-year journalism students were given a semester-long challenge. For 4 months, we must follow a local reporter—read the reporter’s stories, listen to the reporter’s radio program, or watch the reporter’s television show. At the end of the semester, we will interview our chosen reporter one-on-one.”

That is an excerpt from my first blog post, written almost two months ago. It’s now the end of the semester and I have completed that challenge.

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of going to the WBUR station at Boston University and interviewing Robin Young, host of WBUR’s Here & Now. The experience was beyond what I had expected: instead of just sitting down to ask and answer questions over a sandwich, the staff at Here & Now, especially Robin and managing editor Chris Ballman, gave me a full-scale immersion into the building, the creation of the program, and the show itself.

As I sat with Robin in recording studio 2C, asking questions between live promos and tags, one question prompted a discussion about how Here & Now is able to book interviews for breaking news so quickly, sometimes just hours after an event has occurred.

Robin told me that, right after 9/11, Public Radio International and Here & Now went out and began to forge relationships with many news organizations, including the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Because of these relationships, Robin said, when Here & Now calls, they’ll get an interview. “We earned it,” Robin said. The work they did to secure these relationships now means that there’s “nothing [they] can’t cover.”

Back in the WBUR lunchroom, surrounded by about twenty staffers answering phone calls for pledges, Robin and I did eat sandwiches and continued the interview. I asked her what seems to have become the “million-dollar” question in journalism: “What are your thoughts about the ‘future of journalism’?”

Though optimistic in terms of Here & Now and public radio, whose numbers are going up, Robin’s main concern about journalism’s future seems to be the challenge of finding some way to present the news without taking away the “beauty and democracy” of the Internet. She said that, without editors making decisions about what was news and what wasn’t news, the public is no longer being “guided.”

She is particularly saddened by the tendency of many news organizations—print, television, and radio—to choose “tabloid” news over hard news, such as Glenn Beck’s recent conflict of interest concerning gold investments. “That’s not news,” Robin said, “This sort of thing was unheard of before. There has got to be a way that makes some requirements about what is truth without tampering down” the Internet.

Here & Now has already seemed to have found a way to utilize the capabilities of the Internet to enhance their broadcast. Photos, videos, and podcasts fill up the show’s website, and there is even a link to follow Here & Now on Twitter. Robin said the staff is always thinking of how to respond to new technology and thinking of what else they can do to keep up with the ever-changing nature of online media.

But with ratings rivaling many television news broadcasts, Here & Now and public radio seem to be well adapted to the journalism revolution.

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The DARPA Challenge

December 10, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

Imagine you were given the task of finding the exact location of ten balloons. If successful, you could win a prize of $40,000. However, these balloons could be anywhere in the contiguous United States. How would you find them?

On Wednesday, December 2, Robin Young, host of WBUR’s Here & Now, covered an interesting competition called the DARPA Network Challenge, in which people around the world were invited to do just that: find ten moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. The first person or team to submit all ten correct locations, as GPS coordinates, would win $40,000.

So on Saturday, December 5, at least 50 teams and individuals competed against each other to find these red balloons. Ultimately, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appropriately named the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, found all ten balloons by 6:52:41 p.m., less than nine hours after the competition began at 10:00 a.m. The five-person team was made up of Riley Crane and Manuel Cebrian, both post-doctoral research fellows at MIT, and three students—Galen Pickard, Wei Pan, and Anmol Madan.

Though entertaining in its own right, the purpose of the DARPA challenge was not to find the locations of the red balloons. The challenge was a social networking experiment marking the 40th anniversary of the ARPANet, DARPA’s precursor to today’s Internet.

Using Internet applications such as Facebook, Twitter, personal websites, email, and text, and with the help of family and friends, teams were able “to explore how broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools.” “The Challenge has captured the imagination of people around the world, is rich with scientific intrigue, and, we hope, is part of a growing ‘renaissance of wonder’ throughout the nation,” said DARPA director Dr. Regina E. Dugan in a recent press release.

Though many teams, such as Erica Briscoe’s team from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, utilized several tools in their strategy, the winning team from MIT relied mainly on its own website. Team leader Riley Crane said he built a website within two days that was designed to attract more and more followers as a way to create a chain effect. Members of the website could then send personalized invitations to friends to get them to sign up and participate as well.

As further incentive, the MIT website said that, if they won, the team would be giving all the prize money away to those people who helped to find each balloon. For each person who received a cash prize for finding or helping to find a balloon, the same amount would also be donated to a yet-unnamed charity.

DARPA hopes that its findings will serve to fuel innovation across a wide spectrum of applications. In an interview following the challenge, Crane said that his team was “in it to understand how to mobilize the vast resources of the human network, to face challenges and explore opportunities in living in such a connected society.”

He added that he thought some applications that might come out of this experiment would be using this technology to find missing children or “something along those lines where there’s an incentive for others to really participate and help out.”

This competition intrigued me, as a current and future Internet user, first by its unusual design, but also by its higher purposes and intentions. I believe I can see a future in this social networking technology that is not limited to “stalking” friends on Facebook or through Twitter. By virtually being connected to millions of people online, the potential for innovation in terms of communication seems endless. And considering communication is probably the most relied upon ability of humankind, the magnitude of potential impact is huge.

And I don’t believe that we would need to promise people upwards of $2,000 to get them to participate in furthering the technology. As Crane said:

“I think [the experiment] actually only works because there’s a benevolent or greater good…. The incentives were designed specifically so that people feel good about the fact that they’re participating, that maybe if they don’t solve it, that somehow they’re helping charity or helping science in the greater good.”

Sources include: DARPA Network Challenge, CNET News, InformationWeek

“Seeing Music”

December 4, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

The NPR and PRI program Here & Now, which airs on Boston’s WBUR 90.9 radio station, occasionally airs medical-related pieces, often as a way to educate the audience about a particular medical topic or recent breakthrough.

On November 27, Here & Now closed the day’s lineup with a feature called “Seeing Music.”

The segment focused on a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, which is defined as a sensation produced at a point other than or remote from the point of stimulation, e.g. the ability to see music as various colors.

As described by Dr. Richard Cytowic, author of “Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses” and “Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia” (coauthored by Dr. David Eagleman) this condition is an involuntary “joining” in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. The synesthete (one who has synesthesia) regards these perceptions as real, often outside the body, instead of as imagined in the mind’s eye.

The human brain functions like this: when something is sensed, a message is sent to the brain classifying the sense as olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), vision (sight), audition (sound), or tactition (touch). In a brain without synesthesia, the messages are separate and will arouse only one sense. In a brain with synesthesia, one message may arouse multiple senses.

Therefore, someone with this condition will often see colors while listening to music or eating food. Sean Day is one of those people. Robin Young, host of Here & Now, interviewed Day, along with Dr. Cytowic, about the condition and the experiences of a synesthete.

Day is the president of the American Synesthesia Association, which is a not-for-profit organization that was created in 1995 as a way to provide information to synesthetes and to further research into the area of synesthesia. Though once considered a rare condition, developments in technology, including fMRI scans and the Internet, have shown that synesthesia is not so uncommon.

fMRI scans have allowed scientists such as Dr. Cytowic to further explore the brains of synesthetes and how they work. One of the reasons synesthesia is so fascinating is that it directly goes against the evolutionary trend for increasing separation of function in different parts of the brain. While the majority of human beings perceive light, sound, taste, touch, and smell as separate from one another (chicken is not sky blue), in the brains of synesthetes, the senses are mixed together.

The Internet has allowed synesthetes to learn more about their abilities and to be in contact with one another.

Day has known that he is different from other people since the age of five. He says he remembers pulling out various records to play so that he could see the colors accompanying the music. He realized his unique ability when he noticed that no one else was talking about the colors.

Synesthesia is not without its setbacks, however. Just as certain tastes and sounds clash when perceived together, the additional sensations of synesthetes can make either good combinations or bad combinations. For example, Day tends not to enjoy listening to a French horn in an orchestra because he perceives the French horn as a color that does not compliment the music’s other colors. He describes the sensation as “disturbing.”

And because this condition is still fairly unknown to the general population, there have been cases of children who exhibit signs of synesthesia being punished or labeled as mentally handicapped because parents do not know how to handle their child’s unusual perceptions.

I first heard about synesthesia earlier this year when my Advanced Placement Psychology class was studying sensation and perception. As a fairly artistic person, this condition fascinated me. The ability to sense taste when you touch something or see colors when listening to a piece of music seems to be a natural enhancement (i.e. not produced by any sort of drug) of one’s perception of the world, and one that would be very interesting to experience, regardless of its few drawbacks.

Today, scientists are trying to figure out the gene for synesthesia. This research will hopefully lead to a broader understanding of the brain’s functioning, particularly in regards to sensation and perception.

Related links: The Synesthetic Experience, The Synesthesia Battery, YouTube – Synesthesia, American Synesthesia Association

Local News Coverage

November 25, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

This post marks week 3 of a three-part series on the coverage of the Boston-based WBUR program Here & Now during the month of October 2009. As the previous post in the series focused on Here & Now’s national news coverage during October, this week I will discuss the program’s coverage of local news and events.

In analyzing Here & Now’s local news coverage, one can see that the only thread that ties the stories together is the fact that they discuss an event that happened in Boston or they feature a local expert being interviewed about a topic.

This broadness means that stories can range a home genetic test developed by a Boston University professor to a new documentary about a local woman who died from AIDS.

Most of the time, these local stories are saved for the second half of the broadcast—especially if they also fall under the “arts” category. This scheduling means that, according to the structure of the program (as I described in a previous post), that Here & Now covers most local stories as secondary features, giving the headline spot to more widespread international and national news the feature spot.

Nashua Telegraph staff photo by Don Himsel

However, there was one exception to this pattern, when four small town New Hampshire teenagers were arrested for allegedly killing a woman and brutally injuring her daughter while they slept. On October 7, Here & Now led its news coverage with this story, which included an interview with the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, a newspaper that is published in a city nearby to where the attacks occurred.

This story was the only coverage of a local event that was presented as “breaking news.” The other local stories illustrated the newsworthy aspects of prominence, proximity, meaning, and human-interest, rather than the importance and timeliness aspects that a homicide embodies.

Because of these weightier newsworthy aspects, Here & Now made the right choice in placing the attacks in Mont Vernon, NH, as the headline story. While many of the other local stories covered the lighter side of news (such as the arts or “Halloween science”), this story was much more serious and therefore capable of grabbing an audience’s attention—exactly what a headline in any news publication or broadcast should do.

National News Coverage

November 14, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

This post marks week 2 of a three-part series on the coverage of the WBUR program Here & Now during the month of October 2009. As last week’s post focused on Here & Now’s international news coverage during the month, this week I will discuss the program’s coverage of national news and events. Next week will be dedicated to analyzing Here & Now’s local news coverage.

One word to describe Here & Now’s national news coverage during the month of October: balanced.

Now, by “balanced,” I mean that Here & Now’s coverage is able to compete with larger news organizations by providing a variety of news stories that cater to a variety of listeners. Instead of focusing on one particular aspect of national news (big headlining events, news that directly impacts listeners, or simply unusual stories), Here & Now spreads its coverage to envelop each of these categories fairly equally. The program thereby covers a wide variety of news, which many similar news programs do not have the budget or resources to do.

In my analysis of the program’s October national reporting, I assigned each individual story to one of three categories: headline politics, advice for the people, and other. Stories in the “headline politics” category cover the day’s big-name events and happenings that many other news organizations would have likely covered as well. Stories in the “advice for the people” category tend to cover less-timely events and to serve listeners by showing how the topic can affect them and what they can do about it. Finally, stories in the “other” category generally cover the unusual, human interest-type topics.

My analysis found that there were 8 stories under the “headline politics” title, 6 stories in the “advice for the people” category, and 5 in the “other” group.

The slightly larger focus on “headline politics” makes sense as those stories are considered to be the most important national events in terms of timeliness and other newsworthy factors. In order for Here & Now to be a viable news source for listeners, the program must compete with other journalistic organizations.

One way that the program competes with other organizations, besides necessarily offering the top news stories of the day, is by giving something back to the listeners. That gift is one of advice. For example, on October 15, host Robin Young interviewed June Thomas, editor of Slate magazine about America’s lack of dental care policies, especially in the midst of national health care debates. In addition to discussing the changes dental practices have experienced over the years, the interview offered listeners advice about what they can do to ensure their own dental health.

To get an extra leg-up on larger news programs, Here & Now includes a variety of human interest (unusual) stories in its national news lineup. These stories are rarely covered by other news organizations—though they are always tied to a recent event in some way—and tend to grab listeners by their unique content, e.g. previewing a new documentary about CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth, who was wounded in Sarajevo in 1992 and was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer.

By reporting stories in a balanced way, Here & Now is able to offer listeners a service that they cannot get elsewhere. This advantage helps to build and establish an audience—one of the primary goals of any news organization. By applying this style of reporting to national news, Here & Now is able to gain listeners anywhere it is broadcast.

International News Coverage

November 6, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

For the next three weeks, I will be analyzing Here & Now’s news coverage for the month of October 2009. Each week will focus on a different aspect of the show’s news coverage:

  • Week of November 1: analysis of international news coverage
  • Week of November 8: analysis of national news coverage
  • Week of November 15: analysis of local news coverage

The purpose of this analysis will hopefully give readers a clearer understanding of the program’s beat and style of reporting.

During October, each day’s program almost always began with the featured international news story, indicating Here & Now’s belief in the importance of international news. Most of the show’s international coverage concerned events in the Middle East, particularly events occurring in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As is the style of the program, in order to discuss these events, host Robin Young interviewed an expert who was either close to the action or knew a lot about the issues that led to the event.

For example, the program’s coverage of the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan, in which 9 United States soldiers were killed, was done on a personal level—Robin interviewed retired Colonel David Brostrom, the father of one of the young soldiers killed in battle, First Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom. Being a former military man himself, Brostrom had adequate experience and knowledge to discuss the topic, as well as a very deep investment in the situation.

However, though Here & Now deems international news to be important, throughout the month the program kept its international focus almost exclusively limited to events that concerned U.S. Foreign Affairs—events directly involving Americans and/or the American government. Instead of even mentioning the major earthquake in Indonesia on October 1, the death toll for which was up to 531 by mid-morning, Here & Now covered the results of a meeting between American and Swiss officials concerning Iran’s nuclear plans that had happened the previous day. The earthquake was also not mentioned the following day, though it made top headlines at CNN.com; the BBC’s website; and even on WBUR, the Boston NPR station that airs Here & Now.

Though perhaps omitting coverage of the earthquake is surprising, I have a theory as to how and why Here & Now chooses to cover the news that it does….

For one, Here & Now presents information through interviews. And though it stays up-to-date on its coverage of current events, it would not have been practical for the program to discuss the earthquake the day it happened, simply because of the difficulty in finding an expert to interview within a few hours of the event’s occurrence and having to reschedule the interviews already scheduled for that day’s program..

Second, Here & Now describes itself as “bringing you the news that breaks after Morning Edition, and before All Things Considered,” two other NPR news programs aired daily before and after Here & Now, respectively. This description indicates that it would cover different topics than the preceding and following programs. And since Morning Edition focuses heavily on foreign, non-U.S. news, Here & Now would consequently focus very little on this area of news.

(An annual study done by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, in 2008, NPR’s Morning Edition focused 20% of its coverage on foreign [non-U.S.] news topics. Assuming that this trend continued into 2009, I reasoned that, if Morning Edition has already covered the previous day’s foreign news, Here & Now would be free to cover U.S.-related foreign news, which makes up only 9% of Morning Edition’s coverage.)

That is not to say that Here & Now completely leaves out all important events if they do not directly concern the United States. Several times in October, the program covered non-U.S.-related topics:

  • the bombing of the United Nations’ food complex in Pakistan (Monday, October 5)
  • the trial in Italy to determine whether Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s immunity from prosecution was constitutional (Tuesday, October 6)
  • the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan (Thursday, October 8)
  • the president of Pakistan’s statement that his government will not cease efforts to stop the Taliban (Thursday, October 15)
  • Afghan president Hamid Karzai agreeing to a runoff election (Tuesday, October 20)

However, the majority of Here & Now’s international news coverage focused on foreign news involving the U.S., indicating that its goal in covering international news is to bring information directly pertaining to America to the American people.