Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

October 11, 2013

When Reporting Breaking News, Words Matter – And Sometimes Languages, Too

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 3:28 pm

Have you ever paid close attention to the words used by journalists during breaking news?

You should. There’s actually a whole spectrum of words used to convey what they know or don’t know – and ideally, how they know it. Sometimes, the language is pretty obvious:

“We have confirmed that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

There’s that word: confirmed. It’s clear, direct. It tells us that a journo has enough evidence to say to us: this statement is true.

But there are other words and phrases that pepper the journalistic lexicon that may not seem so obvious to us, but in fact have a pretty clear meaning to the reporters saying them. Take the following example:

“We’re getting reports that the cat was rescued from the tree.”

When you hear that phrase, “We’re getting reports,” or some variant of it, it should tell you that the information being conveyed to you is very preliminary – so much so that you probably should take it with a grain of salt until further details are available.

Even the same word, used in a grammatically different way, can suggest further nuance. Let’s change that sentence just a little bit to this:

“The cat has reportedly been rescued from the tree.”

In this example, they’re still using a form of the word report, but by changing it from a plural noun to an adverb, it conveys that the journalist has more confidence that the story is in fact true. If you remove that one word, the sentence would be a statement of fact. Insert reportedly back into the sentence, and it shows that you’re still hedging your bets, just in case.

A little further along the news confirmation spectrum, you’ve got other options like this:

“It appears the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

By prefacing the claim with the phrase it appears, the journalist is still hedging their bets, but on the whole they want to convey it’s very likely to be true. Alternatively, you could use the phrase it seems and probably get away with conveying a similar level of confidence, though perhaps a little less so.

If you want to convey even more confidence, but still cover your ass somewhat, you can always modify the sentence by deflecting responsibility to someone else: a source.

“Sources tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

Sources are a big deal, because they help journalists triangulate information to get to the facts. They even have their own sub-spectrum of confidence level. Compare how different these sentences sound:

“An anonymous source tells us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

“Multiple independent sources in law enforcement, the fire department and the intelligence community tell us that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

In the first example, you have a sole source that clearly doesn’t want to be identified in any fashion. That’s an okay starting point to begin your reporting, but it’s pretty weak if that’s what you decide to run with when going public with the story. For anything of particular importance, one source is rarely enough. In the second example, by making it clear that you’ve talked to multiple sources who are okay with qualifying what type of source they are and how they got their info, you’ll inspire more confidence than relying on just a single anonymous source.

Then there’s the phrase that’s probably most coveted by journalists:

“We have learned that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”

While the sentence doesn’t use that most absolute of journalistic terms – confirmed – it conveys that not only something has been confirmed, but that news org is the first to report it. In other words, it’s a scoop.

This spectrum of words and phrases constitute an area of linguistics known as evidentiality, which explores how evidence is conveyed in a language, including the nature of that evidence. In English, journalists use those words and phrases to convey what they know and how they know it, but because we don’t always think about their meaning, we often miss their intended nuance. And nuance is a big deal when you’re trying to say whether or not something is indeed true, especially if you plan to retweet it or share it in some fashion.

English could actually stand to learn from other languages that have evidentiality baked into the essence of their grammar. A number of indigenous languages are actually really good at doing this. Take, for example, Makah, spoken as a second language by a tribe on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. (Alas, the last fluent native speaker of Makah passed away in 2002.)  They actually have suffixes you can add to a verb to change the word and convey how you know something may be true.

If you use the Makah suffix -wa·t, for example, it tells you that something is hearsay, like “I hear the cat has been rescued from the tree.” Another suffix, -x̌a·-š, is used to infer probability, as in, “It’s probable that the cat has been rescued from the tree. Other suffixes convey visual evidence, including whether it’s unclear (“It looks like the cat has been rescued from the tree”) or if there’s enough physical evidence to infer that it’s true (“I see that the cat has been rescued from the tree.”) There’s even a suffix that conveys auditory evidence: “I heard the cat has been rescued from the tree” – perhaps, let’s say, because the speaker heard the owner of the cat express thanks to the rescuers.

Other languages also convey some form of evidentiality. In Eastern Pomo, a Native American language spoken in Lake County, CA, you can add a suffix to a verb to say that you actually felt something. For example, perhaps the speaker knows the cat was rescued because he or she got scratched by it afterwards. In the Yukaghir languages of the Russian Far East, they can modify their verbs to convey whether or not they witnessed something with their own eyes. In Brazil and Peru, the Shipibo people are able to put a modifier into the middle of a verb to demonstrate that the statement they’re making is a direct quote from someone (“The fireman said, ‘The cat has been rescued from the tree.’”)

The more you dig, the more examples of evidentiality you find in many indigenous languages. By baking evidence and verification directly into their grammar, they can convey information in a much more direct, confident way – something that English otherwise handles relatively clumsily. Alas, many of the languages that are best at this are also among the most threatened languages in the world, which is a real shame – and not just because entire cultures are lost when languages die. It’s also because they demonstrate that some cultures consider the conveyance of facts so important, their languages have evolved to allow for an incredible range of ways to qualify the evidence as specifically as possible. Imagine if we had common verb endings in English that were so clear in meaning and intent that anyone hearing them would know exactly what level of confidence you have when reporting something?

We probably shouldn’t hold our breath, of course. The next best thing we can do, perhaps, is to become better listeners to the words used by journalists and understand their nuance. Unless we can get journalists to provide more context about what they know or don’t know, we’ll have to live with the fact that breaking news reporting embraces high levels of nuance – and that it’s up to us to sort out what it all means.

Special thanks to my NPR colleague Jeremy Bowers for introducing me to the Makah language.

October 24, 2008

Sneak Preview Tour of NPR’s Election Studio

Filed under: Election 2.0,Media & Politics,Video — Andy Carvin @ 1:23 pm

I just streamed a live 15-minute tour of NPR’s election studio with NPR election producer Tom Bullock. Here’s an archive of the video in case you missed it:

June 20, 2008

Discussing Twitter, Liveblogging and Journalism at the Guardian in London

Filed under: Media & Politics,Podcasts,Social Media — Andy Carvin @ 2:14 pm

For those of you wondering why I’ve been quiet for the last couple of weeks, I was in London with limited Internet access (stupid US phone doesn’t work there) and then moved into our new house. I’ll talk about the move later, but for now I wanted to share the podcast that was recorded of the event I attended in London, hosted by The Guardian newspaper. The event was part of a two-week series of forums on the future of journalism, and it focused on how real-time publishing tools like live-blogging and Twitter are actually tools for generating conversations journalism and how to make journalism better. It’s 90-minutes long, but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s worth a listen. You can hear it by playing the streaming media file below or downloading the of the event.

May 23, 2008

Impromptu Interview with Jacob Soboroff of Why Tuesday?

Filed under: Election 2.0,Media & Politics,Video — Andy Carvin @ 9:48 am

So I was working at my desk yesterday when Weekend Edition Sunday producer Davar Ardalan suddenly appeared with Jacob Soboroff of Why Tuesday?, a nonpartisan group that produces a fascinating video blog about electoral reform. (In case you’re wondering about the name, it’s based on the question of why on earth U.S. elections are held on a Tuesday, when most people are stuck at work.) Jacob has been participating in Weekend Edition’s Sunday Soapbox blog, which features political commentaries from video bloggers and podcasters, and he was in town for some meetings. (He’s also headed to a Memorial Day clam bake at Joe Trippi’s horse farm; hope he shoots some video while he’s there.)
We ended up running across the street to the local Starbucks to grab a drink and enjoy the first tolerably warm temps we’ve had in a few days. It didn’t take long for me to whip out my N95 and record an impromptu interview with Jacob about Why Tuesday? and electoral reform:

March 20, 2008

Lessig Launches Change Congress: Political Reform a la Creative Commons and Wikipedia

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 2:42 pm

Change CongressToday at the National Press Club, Professor Lawrence Lessig launched the Change Congress project. Created in conjunction with Joe Trippi, the project intends to employ the strengths of the Internet to end the impact of PACs and lobbyists on congressional policymaking. What’s really fascinating about this initiative is that he’s taking the lessons learned from creating the Creative Commons copyright initiative and applying it to political reform in a way that’s never been done before.
In his speech, Lessig gave several examples of policy changes that should have taken place but didn’t because of the influence of money, such as combating global warming or limiting the recommended allotment of sugar in our diets. These are policies that should have been no-brainers, but industry influence upended the process. He noted that when the country’s forefathers talked about independence, it wasn’t just about independence from Britain, but independence from improper influence as well. In that sense, he argued, their goal of achieving independence has failed.
But Lessig thinks it’s still possible to remove this dependence between Congress and money once and for all. The Change Congress project will take a three-step approach to the issue.
First, he wants members of Congress and the public to go online and pledge their support for up to four different goals: no longer accepting money from lobbyists and PACs; banning earmarks; supporting public financing of campaigns; and achieving total transparency of how Congress works. Users will be able to do this in the same way you select a Creative Commons license for your website. Their website will have a form that lets you select which ones you support, and it’ll generate a code you can put on your own site. This code will contain metadata driven by the semantic Web – essentially, a collection of URLs, each defining which of the policy goals you support. (update, 4:20pm: when I wrote this paragraph, the site’s badge generator wasn’t up and running yet, but now that it is, it seems that the code generated for users doesn’t contain Semantic Web metadata yet. Update 4:37pm: I’m now told that Semantic Web metadata might be rolled into the badges very soon, possibly later this evening or tomorrow; a volunteer is working on the code and hopes they’ll use it. -ac)
Embedding this code into your website, whether you’re a policymaker, a candidate or a member of the public, will let them reach step number two: tracking who supports what. In the same way that search engines can pick up websites that employ different Creative Commons licenses, Change Congress will be able to pick up which sites support each of the four policy goals. They’ll then be able to map out where support is strongest and where it’s weakest. Then, they’ll deploy crowdsourcing, just like on Wikipedia, to get an army of volunteers delving into the details to see who’s just pledged support and who’s actually supporting the cause in measurable ways. This information, too, will be mapped for all to see and scrutinize.
Step number three will be to employ these tools for raising money. The public will be able to make small donations – even just five or 10 dollars – to candidates that share the same policy reform beliefs as they do. This will allow for grassroots fundraising to take place, not unlike Emily’s List or the Obama campaign. Taken all together, he describes his project as a “Silicon Valley approach” to policy reform.
Lessig admitted there will be naysayers, particularly those who feel there are other problems more important that reforming Congress and the flow of money. To them, he gave the example of the alcoholic. An alcoholic faces many problems – loss of family, employment, health, etc – but none of them can be solved until the underlying problem – dependence on alcohol – is addressed first. To Lessig, before we can solve all the major policy issues of our day, we must first eliminate Congress’ dependence on money and outside influence. Once this can be done, the real work of implementing important policy solutions can take place. Harnessing the power of the Web and its seemingly endless community of concerned citizens, he may just be on to something here. -andy

March 12, 2008

Get My Vote: NPR’s User-Generated Political Commentary Initiative

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 9:51 am

Eighteen months ago this week, I started working at NPR as senior product manager for online communities. I’ve spent a lot of that time working with shows on social media experiments and educating NPR staff about the role Web 2.0 can play in journalism. But I’ve also spent much of the last year working on a big project – one that would have NPR dive head-first into user-generated content. The project is called Get My Vote, and we’ve just launched a public beta of the website.

Get My Vote screenshot

As the name suggests, the project is based around a basic premise: what will it take for political candidates to get my vote? Every person has their own reasons for selecting a particular candidate, their own litmus tests, and we’re asking the public to articulate this in the form of open letters to the candidates. Using Get My Vote, you can upload your own commentary – audio, video or text – and talk about what issues or concerns will drive you to the ballot box. NPR is then planning to incorporate these commentaries into our shows throughout the rest of the election cycle.
We’ve also designed the project in such a way that local stations – both NPR and PBS stations – can create their own Get My Vote initiatives on their websites by embedding Get My Vote widgets. That way, a station can localize the project. A station in Arizona, for example, might create a local version of Get My Vote focusing on immigration perspectives, while a station in Massachusetts might challenge users talk about what it would take for local mayoral candidates to get their vote. So while most users might end up talking about the presidential candidates, I’m hoping it’s used for state and local races as well.
On the Get My Vote homepage, you’ll see that we’re using a tag cloud prominently. These tags are submitted by users when they upload their commentaries. For example, a commentary from an Iraq war vet about healthcare for vets might include tags like “Iraq,” “healthcare” and “Walter Reed.” The more often a particular tag is used by commentators, the larger it appears in the tag cloud. That way, you can get a sense of what topics and ideas are being referenced most often by commentators. Clicking any tag also will show you all commentaries associated with that word or phrase.
We’ve also ensured that the commentaries are embeddable on other websites and social networks – a first for an NPR project. There’s an embed code available for commentaries that you can grab and place in your website. You can also click an option to post on another blog or network, giving you a list of more than 20 sites where you can upload your own Get My Vote commentary, or someone else’s. For example, here’s a video featuring Texas musician and author Kinky Friedman talking about the death penalty:

Speaking of Kinky, you’ll notice that some of the videos in the site have been produced by NPR staff. That’s mainly because we didn’t want to launch a site that was devoid of any commentaries, so we put together a few just to get things going. Soon enough, I expect the number of user-generated commentaries to far surpass the numbers of commentaries we’ve produced for the site.
The site is now in public beta. This means that anyone can now access the site, upload their own commentaries and explore the site in general, but we’re still working out a few bugs and other minor fixes. We’re hoping that if you have any problems with the site you’ll alert us through the contact form. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to tweak the site, and soon after that, we expect some of our shows to begin using it on air.
So when you get a chance, please visit, upload your own commentary and please let us know what you think. Our team is really eager to hear what you have to say. -andy

March 5, 2008

Let’s Play Stump Speech Bingo!

Filed under: Election 2.0,Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 8:48 pm

Having watched the presidential candidates give stump speeches a gazillion times, it didn’t take long for me to start recognizing certain phrases. On Twitter, several of us even began to joke about having drinking games every time McCain said “my friends” or Obama said “hopemonger,” for example. So it occurred it me it would be fun to create some kind of game for spotting all the catch phrases they use in their stump speeches again and again. So I came up with Stump Speech Bingo.
I tracked down some code that would allow me to generate random bingo cards, which I then populated with stock phrases used by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Here’s an example of a randomly generated John McCain bingo card:

Since my blog isn’t printer friendly, you won’t want to print out this page. So I created a new page that would generate random bingo cards for each candidate:

Game rules: Before a candidate begins a speech, have each player print out their own copy of the candidate’s bingo card. (It’ll generate a new random bingo card when you reload the page.) Then, as the candidate uses stock phrases from his or her stump speech, look for them on your card. If you find a match in one of the boxes on your card, mark off that box. The box marked “BINGO” is a freebie that you can mark off immediately. As soon as you get five across or diagonally, call out “stump speech bingo!” and you’ll be the winner. (If you’re playing via Twitter, simply tweet the message to your friends.)
If you have any questions about the game or would like to suggest other stock phrases from candidates’ stump speeches, please post a comment here or email me at andycarvin _at_ yahoo DOT com. I’m also hoping to create special editions to be used at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions – stay tuned! And special thanks to Karl Geiger for making the source code of his bingo card generator available on his website. -andy

February 8, 2008

Amy Winehouse and Media Concentration:
Why Going Back to Black in the US Radio Market Ain’t Easy

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 8:47 am

This morning I was listening to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition by Rob Gifford talking about British soul singer Amy Winehouse, who is nominated for more Grammy awards this year than any other female artist. The bulk of the story focused on how Winehouse and her runaway hit album, Back to Black, has paved the way for new wave of young women songwriters with a decidedly retro outlook, harkening back to the glory days of Motown. But then it took a twist I wasn’t expecting: the impact of media concentration on musical diversity and the US racial divide.


February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday Election Returns, Courtesy of Google

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 2:40 pm

Following Super Tuesday Results on Twitter

Filed under: Media & Politics — Andy Carvin @ 9:46 am

Tonight’s going to be a busy night for Twitter users, with more than 20 states voting in the biggest Super Tuesday primary in US history. Twitter use has spiked during major election events, like debates and the Iowa caucuses, so tonight should be even crazier. Thankfully, the folks who run Twitter just moved their servers to a new ISP, so hopefully they’ll withstand the crush of tweets once the first polls close at 7pm ET tonight.
If you’re interested in joining in on the fun, I’ll be tweeting from NPR headquarters into the wee hours of the morning, monitoring the results with the rest of the Super Tuesday team. I’ll be posting official precinct results, as well as whenever NPR makes the call for a particular primary using nprnewsblog, while I’ll use my acarvin Twitter account for more general observances. I’ve set also up a Twitter account called SuperTweetday. All Twitter users are invited to reply @SuperTweetday to share stories about what’s happening locally in their voting precinct at the polling stations, as well as observations on the results. These posts will then be automatically to the SuperTweetday account, so if you follow it, you’ll receive everyone else’s comments.
Meanwhile, you should check out Twitter accounts Supertuesday, which is already covering election activities now that the polls are open, and IVoted, which invites people to tweet their votes @IVoted to share them with other users.
It’s gonna be a fun night. Hold on to your hats, and keep your fingers crossed that the system doesn’t come crashing down…. -andy

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