Sunday, January 1, 2012

For Jan. 5 discussion: I've got 99 problems but redistricting ain't one

The nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica looks into all kinds of important issues. Their efforts are vital, especially at a time when many newspapers and television stations are cutting back on expensive investigative work.

Its reporters and editors come from, among other places, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They are serious people doing serious work. And they do it very well. Last year, ProPublica won a Pulitzer for an investigation into euthanasia at a hospital in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. It won another this year for a series about the ways the "Wall Street money machine" worsened the economic crisis.

This fall, ProPublica's reporters started an investigation into redistricting the process by which the government decides where voting district lines are drawn. There are a lot of problems with this process. Partisan politics heavily influence the way voting district lines are drawn, and the resulting gerrymandered districts do more to help politicians and special interests than to serve the people who actually live in them.

To start to shed light on this, ProPublica gives us an enterprise story explaining the ways special interests can benefit from influencing the redistricting process. They offer up another piece that explains the jargon of redistricting.

Then, there's this. An original music video. Made by journalists. About government redistricting. Watch it after the jump.

CJR called the video "something like YoGabbaGabba! meets DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince meets, maybe, Eminem— with guitar solo by Slash." Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab says it is "accountability journalism, MTV-style." Scott Klien, ProPublica's editor of news applications, told the Nieman Lab it was meant to be "a civics lesson gone wrong."

This isn't the first time ProPublica has used music videos to tell the news. Earlier this year, a series on fracking was accompanied by this video that neatly explains the process and the controversy surrounding the process in two minutes and 33 seconds (as an added bonus, you'll enjoy their attempt to rhyme the word "formaldehyde").

Read the stories (don't be intimidated by the apparent length - they include a lot of reader comments at the bottom that you need not read if you aren't interested). Watch the videos. Tell me what you think. Valuable? Waste of time? Cheesy? Effective storytelling tool? What about the packages as a whole? What purposes do the videos serve? Should more journalists do this?

If you can sing your comments during class, I'll be especially impressed (not impressed enough to give bonus points, but impressed nonetheless). Elaborate performances are welcome.


  1. I think the videos are a viable tool that go well with a story which further explains the videos. They are informative and have the opportunity to hit a lot of people. A journalist's job should be to educate and the videos are effective in doing so. In our ADD society I think that in order to be effective a story that used to be just print needs to go a lot farther. Modern day journalists need to be able to shoot videos to go along with their story or at least be able to put a few pictures together with captions to tell the story.

    The videos do not have to be animated and musical but I think multimedia is essential for any journalist.

  2. Something I find very interesting about this video is the use of color to distinguish minority groups. The video shows each house a certain color and what struck me the most were the black and white houses being split up. This plays on the audience's, hopefully, fair conscience and reminds them that government is still a proponent of social inequality. The kidnapping scenes are also all of a woman being taken from her house, maybe another tactic to get a rise from the audience?

    When I finished the article I thought, "wow. This plus the video is a complete info package." But, since we decided in class that our culture and society is ADD, even if they watch the video first, they may not know what all of the vocabulary is about. This then leads the viewer to the article and boom, the whole package is open.

    Putting both of these together is a very specific way to reach, what I think is, a targeted audience. It's almost becoming their trademark and that is something that's going to keep viewers coming back.

  3. I think this video is a valuable and effective story telling tool. The first forty seconds reminded me of a School House Rock video. It was light-hearted and easy to understand, but got the point across. The ProPublica people take the video to a darker point of view as the video progresses. The video is informative and the journalists emphasize how serious an issue redistricting is. I believe a video such as this can reach out to the younger voters who may not be aware that such things exist. The video can introduce them to new concepts and the article can give further explanation.

    I'm not sure the video could entirely replace a story, but it is a good supplemental tool. I know it got my attention for 3:38 seconds.

  4. I think that this video is a very effective story telling tool. I see it as a tool to educate younger students and voters about redistricting. My mom is a high school government teacher and she uses videos, similar to this one, to introduce topics to her students. Teenagers are more inclined to watch a four minute video rather than read a two page article.

    The package as a whole gives the readers two different dimensions to learn about redistricting and its issues. As we discussed in class, we live in a technology based society and videos such as this are becoming important to the storytelling process.

  5. I think this video is very informative, and it is a great way to inform young adults and children about redistricting. I agree with Katie's statement about this video being similar to School House Rock. I used to watch those videos in my elementary school social studies classes, and I found them great tools for learning. If there is a video filled with song and color, it will catch younger audiences' attentions. They will want to learn more about redistricting if it is taught through a cheerful and happy video instead of through a textbook.

    I found the description of this video, from "Yo Gabba Gabba meets DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince meets Eminem" humorous, and it made me giggle.

    Videos are effective supplements for stories, but they shouldn't be the only parts of the stories. Journalists need to maintain their writing skills. However, it is good to be well-rounded.

  6. Just like the fracking video we watched in class, this ProPublica video appeals much more to a younger audience than a traditional news story. By using clever animation and a catchy song, it alerts the public to an issue that is very prevalent but not exactly "interesting," especially to a younger generation. Although the video gives a lot of good facts and engages the viewer, its one-sided stance causes one to question the other points of view that are left out, which can be the disadvantage of a news piece with a clear agenda.

    However, overall the video was very well done and is definitely worth the time that was put into it because it is an important issue that would otherwise be unknown.

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  8. I think that the video not only helps draws in more viewers, but it also helps the audience remember the issues better than a print article. Today's society is center around visual communication where more people can recall the details of a commercial than of a story. The music video utilizes the people's need for visual stimulation with the colorful illustrations and raises the viewer's chance of remembering the information through the lyric and image repetition.

    This method would not be affective for every story, but it works well with the issues ProPublica has covered so far. Because the organization is so established, the video is seen as legitimate journalism. If it was made by some students and just uploaded to YouTube, I think that more people would question the facts presented and see the project as unprofessional.

  9. Just speaking about the story itself, I appreciated how broad it was. This is both its best asset and, probably, its one real weakness. You've got people at fault on both sides--republicans and democrats, special interest groups, self proclaimed independents, etc--the corruption going on is so widespread. Which is the main point, obviously, and a point well made. The only problem with that is it's tough to find a heart for the story, a real focus, one person or group to pivot all the bigger issues around and act as the emotional force of the story. They do this to a degree, with Congresswoman Brown and others. Although I'm assuming these people will be more fully fleshed out in the upcoming stories in the series.

    I liked the video for what it was: an attempt to simplify the issue for a younger audience. I don't think it worked quite as well as the fracking video, though. One, it comes off a bit angry. And two: whenever I see any mature or complicated issue boiled down for a younger, or more hip audience, I get a bad taste in my mouth. There's a fine line between cool and cheesy, and I think that, in this regard, a rap/rock song about redistricting is on thin ice. It does get the message across well enough, though. Which is, I guess, all you can ask.

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  11. It's hard to say wither making a music video is an effective tool or not, for a couple of reasons. For one, have you ever heard a song for the first time and your not completely sure what the song meant? I think this poses a problem, sure, if you know all about redistricting, if you have read some articles on it before and are familiar with it this video makes sense. But having this video be the first thing you have ever heard about redistricting, one may become extremely confused about what redistricting is. But then again that can also help ProPublica get their point across. If I knew nothing about redistricting and saw this video and wasn't completely sure what I just watched, I would probably Google redistricting and read a couple articles about it. But would all people be ambitious enough to do that some would and some wouldn't.

    Another problem with this video making, if you a 13 year old person stumbles upon this video and has never heard anything about what redistricting is, does this video really make that 13 year old person interested enough in the topic? Probably not. And isn't that the whole reason ProPublica made this video to bring in younger audiences and try to get them to care a little bit more about these bigger issues? I guess that is for that person to decide. But even if this video does intrigue that 13 year old boy or girl, that person can't really do much about it. He or she isn't able to go out and vote. I guess, they could inform their parents about it and hope they make a difference, but for most children to convince their parents on a political issue is a long shot.

    Another thing to think about. Could this video make older adults, who may think this is "childish", consider ProPublica a non-credible source? Certainly.

    I think this whole video making thing is very controversial and may not be the best way to get people interested in a topic. But it's tell which way this Journalistic approach will go and it's kind of interesting to see its progress.

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  13. The story and video both do a great job with explaining everything in a way that a person who may not be familiar with ProPublica or the topic matter will be able to follow the story. The video is attention grabbing and may be more appealing to today's news readers. The story is still made available, the video just adds to the depth of the story and is absolutely an excellent storytelling tool. In today's media business every news source is competing for our attention. A video to accompanying a story is a much stronger way to reach out to the reader.

    The use of a video like this may not apply to all stories, but journalist should be looking for ways to attract the attention of their readers and to help them better understand the topic.

  14. ProPublica has utilized its resources in a very effective way. Both the video and the article were informative and clear. I understood the point they were trying to get across and the video made it enjoyable to learn.

    I started out with watching the video. Coming from someone who is a visual learner, the illustrations and written lyrics were helpful. It was clean cut; there was no beating around the bush so to speak. Nearing the end of the video, it had shown specific areas in the United States where this is occurring. By showing certain areas, it was providing examples of what ProPublica wants our society to stand up against. The video is an effective tool that is easily understood. Teachers would be able to show this to their students in Junior High and they would easily be able to follow it. It was engaging because it wasn’t repetitive and it was creative.

    The article was well written. After watching the video, it was easy to follow along with the article. I knew exactly what the journalist was representing. The writer went straight to the point. There was no long introduction, instead it stated the main focal point and it was simple.

    I found that the two together was a great effective storytelling tool. I did not find it cheesy or a waste of time. Overall, to me, this is a great way to utilize both multimedia and storytelling.

  15. I like the videos a lot. I saw both this one and the one on fracking, both were on subjects I didn't know what they were or what the problem was. Not only were the videos informing, they were interesting and it was something that would definitely influence someone to not only read their articles, but maybe even look more into the issue all together.
    I think it's a great new way to do journalism and to get stories out there. Because of the society we live in now, almost everything has to be entertaining in order for it to be successful. I believe this video works and this method can last for a long time.

  16. As effective as a viral video campaign can be, its reach is limited. A specific kind of person regularly tunes into viral content. Therefore only a specific kind of person would be influenced by the above clip.

    ProPublica was smart to target this audience. A group who otherwise would most likely not know much about fracking. The video serves to both educate and entertain a younger (or at least more savvy) audience, as well as motivate them to take action against the issue.

    Fracking is a complicated issue that many do not understand. When articles are written about things people don’t understand, they typically don’t read them.

    That’s probably what motivated ProPublic to produce the clip. A fun and catchy animated YouTube video that spells the basics of Fracking 101 provides the background information many readers lack.

    Though I had seen the word ‘fracking’ around and was aware of its newsworthy status, I did not know any more detail before watching the video in class. I would be more willing to spend time reading an article on the subject now that I know the basics.

    Although producing a video like the one ProPublic released worked in this situation, I don’t feel the strategy should be overused or frequently imitated. The salience of the video is partially responsible for its effectiveness.

    Also in my opinion, a journalist should only give enough information to help someone make up their own mind and should never motivate or herd an audience into the side they deem correct.