Maps that can help tell more accurate stories

At the time of California fires this October, I read in the news somewhere that an area in San Marcos (a small town near San Diego) is one of the places that is burning. One of my childhood friends whom we hadn’t talked for a while lives on that area. I tried to reach her but her cell phone was strangely busy (It was strange because cell phones have call waiting and should not be busy.) So I got really worried. I saw in Mindy’s blog that LA Times has set up a Google Map application which shows the exact location of the fires along with some details. The map even had an option where you could get directions to or from the location of each fire. So, I put my friend’s address there and found out that they are four miles aways from the fire. That was really calming. Then I put the address of all my friends’ houses who live in the burning areas and found out that they are all safe, without the need to call like crazy everyone I know in California.

An article in NY Times in July 2007 talks about all the amazing new things you can do with Google Map and other online map applications that are now available, thanks to the competetion among search engines and some corporations to attract more users. These new services help us to have “a much richer description of the earth” as John V. Hanke, director of Google Maps and Google Earth, says in the mentioned article, since each user can now “geotag” various locations on the maps, by adding details and photos of each place, a sort of Wikipedia of places on earth.

But Google Maps and services simillar to it are not just useful for creating personalized geotags. These new services provide a great opportunity for journalists to offer vital information and details about a place that is covered in a news story. In the case of California fires, nothing could help me and so many other concerned people more than a map that exactly and accurately tells you where the fires are and how far they are from the location of your loved ones. Before seeing the LA Times map, I searched any news website and county websites I could find, to see if I can find out whether my friend’s house is under fire or not, but I couldn’t. A news story about the fires couldn’t help me and many other people at that time either, no matter how powerful those stories would be.

So, considering all the amazing things you can do with online maps, (such as this map that tells you about the places, times, and details of arsons in Chicago), many stories can offer much more additional – yet detailed and important – information. These maps can’t act as a replacement for news stories, but they would be great complements to put the news into a different perspective, most probably a more in-depth one. And of course, they are great tools to let you know if your loved ones are safe at the time of emergency.

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More on Site Meter, Technorati, and FeedBurner

Site Meter:

Site Meter lets you see how many people have visited your blog, how long they have been on your page, which ISP, browser and Operating System they use, and what their screen resolution, IP, and location is. You can set it up in a way that it ignores visits from your computer and browser, so that the stats will be more realistic, and do not include your numerous refreshing of your own blog. You can also make it private, so that nobody except you would be able to see it (like my Site Meter!)

Now, how can you do all that with Site Meter? Sure I can tell you very quickly how it works if you don’t know it already, but I won’t! (I’ll explain at the end of this post why.)

Side Note: You can’t use one of the best features of Site Meter on your wordpress.com blog, which is seeing the referrals of your blog (the blogs and websites that have linked to you.) Site Meter referral tracking works with JavaScript, and wordpress.com does not allow JavaScript on its blogs. But you can still find out about the blogs or websites that have linked you through WordPress.com’s stats, technorati, or Google.

Technorati:

Technorati tells you what the ranking of your blog is among thousands of blogs registered there, lets you browse blogs by tags or categories, and tells you which blogs have linked to you. It let’s users choose their favorite blogs – which everybody can see – and that give you the chance to create a social networking system. It does a lot of other things too. But I won’t tell you what they are!

FeedBurner:

You probably know what feed, RSS, and syndication are, since we are using it to see the title of the latest posts of our classmates’ blogs on our class main blog. You don’t need to get into technical details of how feeds work. It’s just enough to know that, by subscribing to the feed of the blogs and websites you are interested in, you will be able to automatically get notified about their new posts, without the need to visit them constantly. Most of the blogging services automatically provide you with a valid feed. If you want to subscribe to a blog, you just need to add the URL of that blog’s feed to a feed reader you use, such as Google Reader.

Now, you might be wondering why we need FeedBurner, since we already have the feed of our blogs set by wordpress.com. Well, the advantage of FeedBurner over the normal feed system our blogs offer is the statistics it provides. You can see how many people visit your blog through your Site Meter, but you can’t see how many people are reading your blog through a feed reader.

For example, the number of times I read your blogs will not be counted in your blog’s stats, because I always read your blogs in my Google Reader, and just come to the actual page of your blog when I want to leave a comment! FeedBurner has a system to track how many people have subscribed to the feed of your blog, through which feed readers, and a lot more! This feature of FeedBurner is included in its “pro” section, but this “pro” section, unlike what it might suggest, is free!

It’s all about reading the instructions

Now I mentioned some of the features of these widgets and tools that you might already know or not know. There are also a lot more to them that I didn’t mention. Why? Because they are all explained in details in the websites of each of these tools. It’s actually the same case for almost any other tools or widgets for the blogs (or many other things related to web developing.) When you see a new online tool or service which seems useful to you, don’t bother yourself to find somebody who is web savvy to ask for instructions. Read the instructions yourself. They are usually explained in a very simple and comprehensive way.

By following the instructions, you usually can add any widget in 10-15 minutes. So try to make yourself used to reading the instructions. If you get used to that, you’ll later see that a whole new world is opened to you; a big world of open source tutorials and HOW-TOs.

(My experience is that, sometimes, if a person explains to you how a widget works and how you should put it on your blogs, it will sound so confusing or complicated to you. But when you look at the instructions and follow them, you can have your own pace, and can even concentrate more on what your are doing.)

As Prof. McAdams has mentioned in our class blog:

A person who works on a Web site at a news organization needs to learn how to learn, how to find instructions, how to make things work.

My Second Soundslides

Wild Iris: A Bookstore of One’s Own” is my second Soundsldies. I’m much happier with this one comparing to my first one, specially because I’ve got a new digital SLR camera, which improved the quality of my photos instantly! (It’s a Nikon D40 with 18-135mm lens. These cameras make you a much better photographer, without even needing to learn anything! Of course there is so much to learn to become a good professional photographer, specially a photojournalist.)

I’m happy with the content of the audio. I edited it couple of times and it’s totally different from the version I submitted last week for my audio 2. I removed my stupid narrations and added comments from the customers of the store. (I might lose a grade for not using narrations, but I think this new version is much better than the old one and it is worth it!)

The quality of the audio is not very good though. I couldn’t get a hold of the lab’s audio recorders during the week that I was doing my interviews. It was surprising, because I know there are almost enough recorders in the lab, and some of the students are even using their own recorders. So, I have no idea where the rest of the recorders were! I had to use my MP3 player, which records good quality audio. However, I couldn’t plug in the microphone because of the stupid edge on my MP3 player’s microphone plug-in slot. So I had to use a cable which was narrow enough to get into the MP3 player, but I guess the long cable’s quality was not so good, so the audio is not good!

As for the content, I’m sure it could be much better. But here are the things I thought about while making this Soundslides (keeping Ira Glass recommendations about story telling in mind.)

1- I tried to show why this story matters, by including the customers’ positive comments about the place. (There weren’t any negative comments. People just loved this place!
2- I tried to have a sequence of action, by including the narration of one of the co-owners of the store about when the store was first built and how it has survived so far.
3- I tried to have a climax in the story, which is the opening of the coffee shop.
4- The moment of reflection can be either the fact that this place is the only feminist bookstore survived in Florida, or the survival itself, or the idea behind having a coffee shop. I’m not sure about this part though. I should ask Mindy what Ira Glass exactly means by a “moment of reflection.”

I would really appreciate to hear your feedback about any or all of the things I mentioned above!

Comments on a classmate’s Soundslides

I liked Shifen Xu‘s Soundslides “Live with Umoja” for some reasons, and didn’t like it for some other reasons. It’s a story of friendship and bonding through music. The story starts with introducing the main character and the topic of the story. I like the beginning of the story, because the starting sentence, “My band is called Umoja Orchestra,” is accompanied by the lively music of the band, and a nice overall photo of the band. It has a beat in it, it is forceful, and makes me interested to see the rest of the Soundslides, to figure out what’s interesting or important about this band called Umoja Orchestra.

However, I didn’t notice anything spacial at the rest of the slideshow that would give a climax to the story. Perhaps the idea that a lot of people are joining their band could become a climax, as a success story of the band. But the photos accompanying the audio do not give a sense of importance to the issue. Or perhaps, the idea that these people got to become closer to each other through their music could be considered the climax of the story. But again I don’t think it was forceful enough to convey a turning point.

On the other hand, I liked the ending. It has a sense of conclusion in it. The narrator talks about his overall feeling about his band, about friendship through music, and that “Friendship makes music way better.” The music fades away. The last photo is black and white, showing just the instruments. It gave me the feeling that a performance is finished, everybody is back home, and the instruments are left alone; a sense of ending.

Overall, I’m not sure whether I can call this a story, although there are certain elements of a story in this Soundslides. It has a good beginning and a good ending, it shows some interesting moments, and it tells some background info that can help us build a picture about the band and its history in mind. Perhaps if there was a climax moment in the story, for example the story of a concert, or a certain even that had happened for the band, this could become a more real story.

I liked the use of audio in this Soundslides. The music of the band was used as a sound bed, which made me feel the mood of the band’s work. It’s forceful beginning made me interested in the story, and its fading-away at the end of the story made me feel calm! I just suggest that Shifen turns the volume of the sound bed a bit down when the narrator is talking. It was a bit too loud and annoying at some points of the narration.

On the side note, I had some difficulty to relate this Soundslides to an aspect of campus life. I heard at some point some band members met through college, and I saw a photo of them on campus, but overall I couldn’t relate it to campus life. To me this was more something out of campus. It was more a profile of the band and their personal interactions, rather than an aspect of campus life. Perhaps some narration about how the band’s work affects the members’ school life, or how the band interacts with college students would make it more relevant. Also, it would be nice if there was something mentioned about the band’s practice or concerts on campus, if there were any.

Soundslides: life on UF family housing

My first Soundslides is not a great package, because many of the photos are not very well- exposed or well-composed. But still I’m happy about the final outcome, because I learned a lot and did my best.

After seeing the final outcome, I noticed what additional photos I could take to tell the story better. I also learned a lot about the importance of timing. Due to my lack of time because of a trip, I chose to take photos of my neighbors. This made me a bit shy about knocking at their door constantly to take photos at different settings. I also was struggling with the idea of making the story an aspect of campus life, instead of the profile of a family. In the end I think I could figure out, to some extent, how to overcome that challenge. I asked the subject of my interview lots of questions about her personal life and her life at family housing. I realized that many of the interesting things she said in the interview had to be removed, because they were not really about campus life. Had I included what she said about her personal life not relevant to campus life, then I would end up with a profile story. I tried to include just the parts that were about campus life.

So, here is the first slideshow with audio totally made by me, except for the Flash part which was done thanks to the great platform Soundslides offers us. Click on the image below to see my first work!

sila

Ethics of execution photos

Kobre talks about four elements in photography, that if combined, would produce best examples of photojournalism: informational, graphically appealing, emotional, and intimate (p. 196). He also talks about three different approaches to ethics in photojournalism: Utilitarian (informing people as the highest priority), Absolutist (individual’s rights to privacy as priority), and the Golden Rule (treating the subjects the way you wish to be treated yourself as priority) (p.300).

The four elements he mentions for producing good photojournalism on page 196 completely make sense to me, and many great photos that I have seen in my life had all these four characteristics combined. But I’m not sure if these four elements can always be compatible with ethical approaches to photojournalism, specially the absolutist and the Golden rule ones.

Few months ago, Iranian news agencies published a lot of photos of public execution of “thugs, rapists, and thieves” in Tehran and some other big cities of Iran. I was appalled by seeing the pictures everywhere on the net. I was heart-broken to see people are posting the pictures in their blogs, as a chance to show their dissatisfaction with their government, without thinking about the right to privacy of the alleged convicts. On the other hand, as a person who is against any form of capital punishment, I thought it would be useful to have the photos of so many people hanged up in the air, because this might show the brutality of capital punishment, and might have some impact on people who do not necessarily find capital punishment wrong. Also, I thought the public has the right to know that their government mass execute people, without holding fair public trials for them (which is against Iran’s constitution).

But what concerns me the most and I hope you can help me digest, is what I call the artistic touch, or in Kobre’s word the “graphical appeal” some of these photos have. You can even see some novel angles in the photos. If the dead people were alive, some of the photos could have been really called appealing. I kept wondering (and I was confused) that how ethical it is to take eye-catching photos of an event so inhumane and brutal. If I were a photojournalist, I would try not to be sent on an assignment to take such photos to begin with, but I understand that there is merit in documenting these executions (not to mention that these photographers have been sent out on assignments to take these photos, and couldn’t perhaps reject taking the photos). But how far should we go? Should we always try to be artistic and have graphical appeal in every photo we take? Couldn’t simple shots of an event such as execution enough for informing the public?

You can see some of the photos I’m talking about in the following albums: 2007-07-17-Execution, 2007-08-01-Execution, 2007-09-02-Public Execution, 2007-09-11-Fortuneteller Executed in Qom.

The photos I’m specifically talking about are these: onetwothreefourfivesix.

(The owner of the above photoblog has not originally taken the photos. He’s copied and republished the photos from various Iranian news agencies.)

Sights and Sounds

As I move on in my Journalists’ Toolkit class and take more and more photos, I become more and more sensitive about things I’d never paid much attention to. One of them is angles and compositions of each frame in the films and TV programs I watch. Sometimes I, unconsciously, look at a video frame as a still photo. In the frames I like, I examine, very quickly, were the main subject of that frame is situated. I’m amazed to see that most often the rule of thirds applies to these video frames. The frames I like usually have a novel angle or composition. On some of the frames, I wish that for example part of the shot was not in the frame (was cropped?). I have also realized that there is some merit to TV programs that I don’t like at all, at least in terms of visuals and the composition of video frames. For example I never liked CSI Miami because of its unrealistic and sometimes childish stories. But I have recently become interested in the program, just because I like the composition of each frame in this program. Sometimes I think each frame of this program can make a beautiful photo!

The other issue that I have become sensitive about is the sounds in soundslides, films, radio, and TV programs. We had a good practice for the class two weeks ago to listen to and examine the use of sounds in two packages. One of the packages was “The Art of Listening,” a small soundslide that contained some recordings of Jesse Seay, one of the founder of “Your Favorite Chicago Sounds” audio archive. The soundslide has few photos. But what makes it interesting and in fact makes the title of the package relevant in my idea, is that the sounds come before the photos. You first hear the sound of a wolf, then you see photos of the wolfs in a zoo. You first hear the sounds of dolphins in an aquarium, then you see their photos. Each set of sounds put you on that location, without even seeing the photos of the location. This was an important lesson for me to learn how much a good and sharp nat sot can make a story more effective. I didn’t even need to see the photos to get a feeling about the zoo or the aquarium. Some of the frames of the slideshow are simply black, so you can even close your eyes and still feel the environment.

The other package that I had to listen to, which was an NPR program on Studying a Koala Mystery in Eastern Australia had the same effect on me. As Sonia has also mentioned, I had a feeling as if I am there in the jungles of Australia searching for Koalas! There was the sound of birds singing and the echo of their singing, mosquitoes, people walking on the grass (or bushes and leaves?), and even people’s voices with different pitches on the expedition. And the climax of the story for me was the end of it, were we could actually hear the sound of a Koala!

Now after these practices, I sometimes listen to the noises and sounds in my environment, wondering if what I hear can be a good nat sat for a story!

My first photo assignment (part 2): Composition and light

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first photo assignment turned out to be indoors and at dinner time. The subject was a family having dinner. I knew the photos do not necessarily have a story element on their own, and I should later add more photos taken in different environment. So, I just concentrated on composition, and tried to shoot as many photos as possible, hoping that something interesting would come up.

The family were sitting next to each other at a round table. I took photos from different angles, keeping “the rule of thirds” in mind. The child was a bit sick and was not eating very well. At one moment, they said something in Turkish and pointed at me, I guess to encourage her to eat! She looked at the camera while her father was pointing at me. While I knew the girl was looking at the camera and her father was pointing at me, I thought it was still interesting to shoot. You can feel my presence in the photo, but I didn’t ask for it.

little girl pointing at camera

I like the photo, because it’s so ordinary, and shows a nice family moment. The girl’s face and hand are in focus, and her parents are blurry. The dinner table is also well-exposed. I don’t know if this is considered a good photo in terms of composition or not. I think it is, because the main subjects of the story are all on one of the lines of the rule of thirds, so the rule of thirds is observed.

I like the following photo as well. I tried to take the photo in a way that her face is fully visible, but I didn’t have much room to move, because of the dining table. I sat on the ground and took this photo. While her face is half covered, I thought it is somehow interesting! What do you think about this photo? Did you wish to see her full face?

woman slicing pizza

After I saw the photos on my computer I realized that my main problem was the light. My camera is a Canon Powershot A80. It doesn’t have many settings, and I don’t have much control over the light. I took a few shots with flash, but they look so unnatural and the lighting looks even worse on them. Many of my photos that involved movement of the subjects turned out blurry. When the light is low, the shutters stays open more, and the chances that the camera vibrates gets higher. So I somehow felt that no matter how careful I’ll be with composition and the settings of my camera, there are things that my camera can’t handle very well. Also, almost all of my pictures look gray, which is a bit frustrating.
Now I’m thinking seriously about buying an SLR camera that gives me more control of the light. The Nikon D40 seems like a basic and affordable digital SLR (comparing to other digital SLRs), suitable for people who want to upgrade from point and shoots to SLRs. I’m going to test Curt’s camera soon too see whether I can handle working with an SLR, or I should still practice with point and shoots. These photo exercises and my classmates’ experiences are making me much more interested about photography!

My first photo assignment (part 1): Preparation is a key

I was in Colorado for a family matter from Friday, September 21 to Tuesday, September 25. So , practically, I had only Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, to take at least 200 photos for my first photo assignment in journalist’s toolkit class, which was due that Thursday. I wanted to take photos of Muslim women at UF. Before I leave, I emailed Islam on Campus and also a friend who knew people from that group, hoping that they would put me in touch with some women from their group. I thought I would get some of the women’s emails or phone numbers, could contact them while I was in Colorado, and set an appointment for taking photos on Wednesday. It turned out that I never received any replies. Later I read Paul Bradshaw’s advice to journalism students on how not to rely just on emails, and instead, try to talk to people on the phone. I should’ve found members of Islam on campus phone numbers and talk to them directly before leaving. Although we leave in the information age, emails do not necessarily work!

My flight had a big delay and I got stuck at Orlando airport’s parking for an hour. So I arrived in Gainesville around 11 pm on Tuesday. I had no time for taking any photos or talking to anyone that day. I had to think about a new story. So the next day I decided to take photos of my neighbors, to tell the story of grad students who live at UF family housing. I chose a Turkish family who have a beautiful little girl. The women said she should ask her husband’s permission for letting me take photos from them. And her husband would come home at 7pm, when the light was not good for outdoor photos.

I was losing time and I was not sure if her husband would let me take the photos. So, I contacted an Iranian couple I knew leaving in UF family housing and they let me take photos. I just took random photos from them. I had no clue what my story would be. They don’t have children, and the wife lives in Miami and comes to Gainesville every now and then. So, practically, only the husband lives on campus. I didn’t know how engaging my story could be, taking photos of a student who is most of the time on main campus and usually spends time at home for sleeping or studying. And I knew I couldn’t ask him to DO anything special in family housing to add to the story. I was so nervous for not having a story. To add to all that, most of my photos turned out to be blurry and I realized my camera setting was not on auto.

While I was thinking of calling them and asking them to take more photos, the Turkish couple knocked on my door and kindly let me take photos from them!

I was somehow relived. They were going to have dinner, so I went there to take photos of their dinner, kitchen, and feeding of their little daughter.

They had a Turkish pizza for dinner and they offered me a slice of the pizza. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if it was ethically right to eat wit them. I was told in my reporting class that we should not accept food or anything else when we are working on a story. But then I thought this is not a publicity thing for them, and they are just being kind. Also, I thought it might be rude to refuse the food. So, I took the pizza home with me, and ate it later. I should confess that the pizza was really delicious! I hope I haven’t crossed any ethical lines with having that pizza!

Turkish woman slicing pizza

When I went home and looked at my photos, I realized all my photos are similar to each other. They were all about a family having dinner. While eating and the nice renovated kitchens of family housing are part of life on that part of campus, it doesn’t tell a substantive story on its own. So I realized that I need to take more photos from them, in different parts of the area, to tell a better story.

Fortunately, we still have more time to take more photos for our first Soundslide package. But I realized that in real world journalism we do not always have that luxury of time. Preparation well ahead of time is part of journalism, and that’s something I should take much more seriously in the future, along with learning to work with the tools.

Having two audio recorders at the scene

NewsLab has collected some really good tips, offered by professional photojournalists, on how to gather audio. Part of the advice is related to the use of sound recorders. It was interesting for me that the article suggested using at least two audio recorders at the scene.

One sound recorder should be connected to either a wireless lav or a shotgun microphone, to get clear audio of the main subject we are interviewing or even just taking pictures of. This could have been very useful for me when I was taking photos of a couple and their child having dinner today. As I was taking photos of the family, we were chatting with each other, and they told some interesting things about who they are and what they do. They sounded so natural and comfortable, and I’m not sure if my future interview with them would sound as natural as today’s.

The article also suggests having a separate recorder on from the beginning of the photo shoot to the end, to grab the whole background sound. If I had an audio recorder on while I was taking the pictures, I could record the sound of the child’s crying. I have a cute picture of her crying, and it would be nice to complement it with the sound of crying. I don’t have the sound now, and I can’t record the sound of crying later due to the ethics of audio editing. Therefore, I have to go back and take another cute photo of the child’s crying!

I wish I had read the article before shooting the photos!