The Revolution Will Be Viral: The Future of Activism

What do you think about when you hear the word “activism”? Usually, the term evokes many to recall mobs of people taking over the streets, signs in hand, calling out catchy slogans and explaining the abuses they were fighting against outside the offending party’s building. Though this form of activism has certainly not disappeared, changes in technology have begun to change what the future of activism may look like.

Activism, in short, is going viral.

In recent years, the rise of the internet has brought about a new trend in how information can be disseminated to a large number of a fragmented public; essentially, make the content go viral. Virality, the tendency of an image, video or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one internet user to another, has  taken the internet by storm. With just a simple click of the button, videos like Devil Baby Attack and images like The Dress can boost internet activity and gain the attention of millions from around the world.

But for activists who want to push through the wall of constant–and usually irrelevant–content to spread the word about their causes, there is almost no better way for them to go viral than through using a medium whose whole algorithm is based on what is trending: Twitter and their hashtags. Through use of the Twitter hashtags, a new form of activism–aptly named hashtag activism— has been at the forefront of many of the new activist movements. But what exactly is the hashtag, and how has it risen to be such a prominent tool? What makes this new digital approach so effective, and in what ways may it fail? And finally, how can the use of hashtag activism be changing the practices and ethics of the news organizations and journalists who so often are called on to report on these viral  movements?

The Hashtag Source:

The Hashtag

Picture Source

~The Rise of Hashtag Activism~

To begin, let’s look at the rise of hashtags as a means of both organizing information and allowing content to go viral. To the surprise of many, these metadata tags have actually been around for a while. While its first use was in 1988 on a platform known as the Internet Relay Chat or IRC (AboutTech) to group content such as images and videos, it wasn’t until 2007 that the hashtag (the term first used by blogger Stowe Boyd) achieved major public notice. During that summer, a San Diego Resident named Nate Riddener appended all of his posts with the hashtag #sandiegofire to inform the public about the ongoing wildfires in the area and the amount of damage they caused. Essentially, the first use of the viral hashtag was an early form of what would later be called hashtag activism.

In July of 2009, Twitter officially integrated the use of hashtags and their viral properties into their site, putting a “Trending Topics” bar of the most popular hashtags on their homepage. Since then, the number of users–and therefore potential activists and audiences–have steadily been rising. According to a report by the Pew Research Center in 2014, Twitter accounts rose in numbers as it attracted 23% of all internet users in 2014 as compared to only 18% of all internet users in 2013. The range and age of their audience has also grown, as shown by this self-made  infographic.

Girl Taking a photo during the civil unrest Source:

Girl Taking a photo during the civil unrest

In the six years that the hashtag has gone from an obscure pound symbol to a powerful social media tool, it has played a part in some of the most prevalent political, cultural, and social events of the decade. In the spring of 2011, hashtag activism took to the global stage as it played a key role in the civil unrest of the Arab Spring. As political activists and protesters took the streets across the Middle East, the use of Twitter and its trending hashtags allowed for those in the midst of the chaos to organize and send their pictures, videos, and personal stories and cries for change across the world, with the hashtag #Bahrain becoming one of the most used hashtags of all time. The use of the hashtag to bring to light and encourage discussions of social and cultural change has also risen. Just within the last year, a plethora of social justice hashtags have gained the attention of the world, with topics ranging from racial violence (#ICantBreathe, #Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown),  to sexism (#DudesGreetingDudes, #StopGamerGate, #YesAllWomen), to domestic abuse, violence, and rape ( #WhyIStayed, #CarryThatWeight), and even to international calls against terrorism (#BringBackOurGirls, #JeSuisCharlie).

History of the Hashtag Source:

The History of the Hashtags Infographic Source:

As the hashtag has risen to public prominence, so to has its place in bringing attention to social and cultural activism causes. Should the trend in both the number of users and the number of hashtag activism movements continue, a large part of activism may truly rely on the continued use of the viral hashtag.


 ~When It Works~

What makes this new digital approach so effective?

At their most basic function, hashtags are a tool for focusing attention. According to a report by Aljazeera America, research by the University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynup Tufekci suggested that “politically motivated non-institutional actors who use affordances of social media to engage in presentation of their political and personal selves to garner public attention for their cause” is essential in carrying out effective, efficient activism on various social networks. If the goal is attention, singular, strategically savvy voices are essential in mobilizing communities to articulate a single message or grievance. Translation: hashtag movements work best when the general public comes together and forms a community dedicated to the cause and trends the hashtag, allowing for the cause to garner the attention it needs to be effective. The power of attention in itself is powerful: it can either directly influence action by the people or will indirectly spur the action of public officials  as their constituents bring their attention to the cause and demand change.  Usually, the hashtag works best when the slogan itself is simple and catchy, evoking the main message of the cause without being too long and complicated.

Rally to bring attention to racial issues using hashtags Source:

Rally to bring attention to racial issues using hashtags

Another critical factor of what allows hashtag activism to work is that using the hashtag is free and open for anyone to use. This allows for more marginalized voices to be heard by the masses. Deray Mckesson, one of a number of leading organizers and activists against police brutality, gave an interview in The Atlantic about how hashtags and social media campaigns have given a boost to the movements he is involved in by allowing black voices and complaints to be heard. These marginalized voices can even come from across the world in places like Nigeria, where the use of the hashtag brought to light the plight of hundreds of girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. When the maginalized voice has a large enough following, it usually sparks intense conversations about political, cultural, or societal change which requires people to think more about the issue and become more involved.

A prime example of this coalition of gaining attention and marginalized voices was the #ALSIceBucketChallenge in the summer of 2014. The movement started when Pete Frates, a former baseball player at Boston College who was diagnosed with ALS, staged a massive bucket challenge in downtown Boston, urging people to either make a donation or dump a bucket of ice water on their head. The stunt quickly gained the attention of the public, with many participants deciding to both dump the water on their heads as well as donate. High ranking celebrities even joined in on the movement, encouraging others to join them in raising funds.



With a combination of both the hashtag and video, the viral movement in the U.S. soon spread across the world, as seen in the geotagged map below.


According to the ALS Association, between July 29th and August 12th, the association and its 38 chapters had received over $4 Million in donations compared to only $1.12 million during the same time the year before.  “We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease,” said Barbara Newhouse, President and CEO of The ALS Association. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the level of compassion, generosity and sense of humor that people are exhibiting as they take part in this impactful viral initiative.” Among the reasons Forbes cited as contributing the success of the viral campaign were factors  already mentioned in hashtag activism’s growth: the participants were of a  younger audience (which is still growing), the message was simple (get wet and raise some funds for a disease) and it had a unifying theme (brought together a community of people), all of which brought attention of the issue to an otherwise uninformed public.

To summarize,  “hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world” (Slate).


~Why It Fails~

But like many initiatives, there are times when hashtag activism fails, and if there is any hope of the viral movements continuing in the future it is important to understand why.

Although one of the main reasons hashtag activism campaigns go viral is due to their simplicity, that factor may hinder the campaign later on as the public fails to truly understand all the factors and implications of the cause. No better example of this exists than the (in)famous #StopKony2012 or Kony 2012 video campaign. In March of 2012, the non-profit organization Invisible Children horrified the world with the release of a video documenting the crimes of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and a convicted war criminal charged with mass murder and the kidnapping and training of child soldiers. The campaign went viral almost immediately with a simple message: Find Kony and stop him.

Although it was this simplicity that originally drew people in, it also helped bring about the downfall of the campaign. Despite the large following, many did not understand that the situation was a lot more complicated than the video made it appear. Critics immediate jumped on the campaign for failing to provide viewers with any “social, political, or economic context for Kony’s violence” (Slate), instead simplifying the situation to the point where it was a matter of good vs. evil ( the video’s director, Jason Russell, was essentially explaining the situation to his five year old son) rather than a complex net of social and political factors.  Once more was learned about the situation (along with other accusations of fraud and offensiveness to Ugandan people), enthusiasm and support for the movement quickly died out.

Using a hashtag does not fix the problem Source:

Using a hashtag does not fix the problem

But the loss of interest by audiences is another factor in why hashtag activism campaigns such as #Kony2012 fail to be successful. Critics of hashtag activism have coined a new word for the action: Slacktivism,  contending that these actions are merely for participant gratification because they lack engagement and commitment and fail to produce any tangible effect, in terms of promoting a cause (Techopedia). Do  hashtag campaigns draw in awareness? Yes. Do hashtags keep the public engaged? Not necessarily. The problem comes after the person has shared the hashtag. With just one click the person feels instant gratification. They’ve helped spread the word. They’re involved. Good job. And that’s as far as it goes. In some cases, slacktivism manifests because the person had no desired  to get involved in the first place, but rather wanted to participate in the trend to bolster their online personas. In a paper by the University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and and co-authors Katherine White and John Peloza, the researchers actually found that those whose initial support for the campaign was public were less likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on compared to those who showed their support privately.

Yes, the use of hashtags to make campaigns go viral can bring large amount of attention to a cause. But when that attention fails to move beyond the realm of social media, and participants stagnate in their devotion to help, little tangible effects will occur. The lesson then is simple: if people are not informed or motivated enough through participating in the hashtag trend, then a trend is all it will ever be.


~Effects on Traditional Journalism~

Whether successful or not, hashtag activism campaigns have and do unquestionably divert the public’s attention, if sometimes only for a moment, to important issues. But how do hashtag activist movements disrupt, if at all, the practices and ethics of the journalists journalists and news organizations who cover these viral stories?

In regards to the news organizations process of choosing stories, journalists have always covered what they saw was “trending”.  But in the new digital era where trends are now algorithmically ranked and viral activist hashtags flood social media, journalists are forced to figure out when Twitter trends merit news coverage or if the hashtag itself is newsworthy. Though many times the news organizations are right in covering some of the movements, there are times when stories less important to the public discourse are chosen as newsworthy due only to their poularity, thereby excluding more important stories from making the news.

Should the #AlexfromTarget really have made it to the news?


As the sources for stories have become more digitized, so to have journalists and their methods of reporting. In a 2013 study titled “The New Normal For News“, Oriella PR Network surveyed more than 500 journalists spanning fourteen countries to see how they have been adapting to the new digital environment. The findings showed that digital media is more entrenched than ever before, with 39% of journalists reporting that their titles are now digital first. The use of Twitter and hashtags to research and crowdsource for news stories had also increased (Look at the sixth group down).

First Port of Call When Researching Story Source:

First Port of Call When Researching Story


The number of news organizations utilizing hashtags has also been rising throughout the years, although their use varies by organization. A 2011  report from the Pew Research Center investigating how mainstream media outlets use hashtags on Twitter found that “There was significant variation in the use of hashtags across the news organizations examined, suggesting significant variation in the extent to which these organizations utilize the unique aspects of this tool.”


Although the utilization of hashtags has not yet spread to all news industries, it is likely that more and more organizations will start to use the symbol  as a tools for both gathering information on more movements and to allow for their own material on the stories to go viral.

In fact, The Columbia Journalism Review article Hashtag Journalism also states that in some ways, journalists should be grateful for hashtag activism as the viral hashtag allows journalists to figure out what exactly it is that the public finds important and wants to discuss and learn more about. As journalists scramble to be the first to find and report a popular story, hashtags have “become a way to capitalize on the nowness, a way for readers to make their preferences known in an era where many news organizations lack an ombudsman and individual outlets’ ‘most read’ lists fail to capture the breadth of what most of us are reading online” (CJR). Journalists, in their coverage of these hashtag promoted stories and activism movements can then add more perspective to the conversation and, with their own use of the hashtag, boost their own work.

Despite the rising trend of news media integrating hashtags and hashtag activism stories into their work, concerns have been raised ethical complications that may arise due to this new media tool.

A personal opinion but a public brand Source:

A personal opinion but a public brand

One complication concerns the perception of objectivity and independence within the news industry through their use of Twitter and subsequent hashtags.  According to the SPJ Code of Ethics for journalists, journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two” with objectivity being the primary goal. As 59% of journalists in the Oriella survey reported that they have their own Twitter accounts, concern has grown about the separation–or lack thereof–that the medium provides journalists in their private and professional lives.  As journalists’ are now themselves becoming a brand to draw in followers, when journalists use hashtags in their coverage it is now becoming harder to see whether the action is merely a part of the objective news story, or if the reporters themselves are standing by the movement. Journalists can also cross the line between reporting and their own personal activism, such as CNN’s Foreign Editor for the Middle East, Octavia Nasr, who was fired after a tweet went viral of her expressing admiration for a late Lebanese cleric considered an inspiration for the Hezbollah militant movement. The blurred lines between the use of Twitter and hashtags for personal or professional statements undermines the reporters credibility, one of the most essential aspects of working in the news industry. This concern has risen with the rise of journalists own personal use of social media.

Journalists Personal Use of Social Media Source:

Oriella Report-Journalists Personal Use of Social Media

But there are some, like Anthony Collings, who believe that although the medium has changed, the dangers and standards of ethical journalism have not. To investigate this, I sat down for an interview with Collings, a former AP correspondent, Newsweek Bureau Chief, CNN foreign and Washington correspondent, and current professor at the University of Michigan who teaches a class on journalism ethics.  Although agreeing that the Hezbollah case was an issue of a journalist crossing a line, when asked about some of the more recent hashtag activism movements, Collings own views were that other, more important factors, played more of a role in how the news of certain stories were reported:

Summing up his argument, Collings made his position clear: The internet and hashtags do not have a characteristic that has made a fundamental change in journalism ethics. “Journalists have to behave like journalists”, he said. “It doesn’t matter the medium or the tool.”

Following in this train of thought, though hashtag activism events may now be covered more widely as journalists are pressured both by their organization and by the public to cover the trending stories and use the hashtags themselves to promote their stories, the standards and ethical dilemmas that journalists face will not differ from those of the traditional news media. All journalists have to do is learn to use the medium correctly.


By this time I’m sure many have become bogged down by all the information posed within this post, so allow me to sum up the main points of this future tool of activism:

  1. The rise of the hashtag as a means of organizing information has itself given rise to a new and highly used platform for activism
  2. By focusing audience attention, remaining simple, and being open for all walks of life to use and engage in, hashtags can sour the people to action and direct public pressure onto public officials
  3. When a message is too simple to garner full public understanding of the issue, and when the public fails to show their support past sharing the hashtag, the movement is likely to fail
  4. Hashtag activism has changed the way journalists find and report the stories they need to cover, but has not enacted a fundamental change in the ethics that journalists must uphold

Is hashtag activism going to be the only form of activism in the future? Personally, I think (and hope) not. But I think it will become one of the most important tools that an activism group can have. Regardless of how good the message and well-meaning the intent, it is all for not if the work and message of the group does not get noticed by the public. Hashtag activism is the tool to use to gain that oh-so-important attention. It is not the end of the movement, but rather the start of it. Hashtag activism should be used to spur the public into more active action, to go beyond the bounds of their computer or mobile screens and actually do something. Hashtags, in essence, allow for these movements to garner the power and pressure of the public to make  a change.

Of course, there is no way to truly know what the future holds. Much like the hashtag trends, one day something is “in” and the next day it’s forgotten. But considering how hashtags have fully integrated themselves into our social media culture,  it looks like they will continue to rise in their use by activists and reporters alike. For now, it is our future and we must learn how to utilize it to the best of our ability should we wish to truly help bring about the change we need.


The Syrian Activist: Mazen Darwish

We’ve heard their names before; Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Jane Fonda, and many more. What all of these people have in common is that they were activists, specifically in America. But what we rarely ever see are the activists who work in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Yes, there are times when a phenomenon like Malala Yousafzai appear before us due to widespread news coverage, but what about those activists, those brave men and women who have been fighting for much longer?

To spread some light on one of the foremost but unsung activist heroes, allow me to introduce you to Mazen Darwish. Darwish is a Syrian lawyer, journalist, and free speech activist who has worked for many years on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Syria. News organizations including Reuters and the Associated Press have described him as one of Syria’s most prominent activists.

Born in 1974 and graduating with a law degree from Damascus University in 1998, Darwish started his activism career in 2000 by helping to establish the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedom and Human Rights (CDF) with a group of Syrian activists. His claim to fame however was in 2004 when he founded the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the first non-profit organization advocating human rights and defending freedom of speech in Syria. The activities the SCM undergoes includes posting monitoring information online, publishing reports on human rights and the state of media in Syria, and keeping records of the names of people detained, missing, or killed in the course of the Syrian conflict. Darwish has stated that his aim was to “raise awareness and spread freedom of opinion and expression, belief and tolerance within Syrian society, while promoting the work of journalists and defenders of these freedoms” (Human Dignity Forum).


According to The Human Dignity Forum, “as a key figure in advocating human rights in his country, Darwish organized peaceful sit-ins in front of Parliament and Ministry buildings and co-launched the first electronic magazine on human rights in Syria, ‘The Voice’. He also published the first report on press freedom in Syria and developed a methodology to monitor media websites”. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, Darwish also participated in a sit-in for the release of political prisoners in front of the Ministry of Interior, where he was arrested and beaten by security forces. Throughout the course of his career as an activist, Darwish continued his activist activities despite the constant fear of jail and abuse.

Most recently, Darwish has become a phenomenon in the activist world after his arrest in 2012 by the Syrian government, and his further detention for the last three years. According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and his wife Yara Bader, Darwish was “forcibly disappeared for nine months, during which time he was severely tortured and then referred to the Damascus central prison, Adra”. He has since been charged with committing “Publicizing” under article 8 of the anti-terrorism law (The Guardian, 2015).  The written indictment dated 27 February 2013 explicitly refers to his work to promote and protect human rights – actions which are held against him as part of an attempt to promote terrorist acts and to “stir the internal situation in Syria and so provoke international organizations to condemn Syria in international forums” (Free Syria’s Silenced Voices). The charges have inspired a myriad of backlash from organizations and individuals alike, appealing for his release.



Despite the controversy surround Darwish in his home country, it has not stopped his accumulation of prestigious humanitarian awards. In 2014 he shared with Salman Rushdie the Pinter International Writer of Courage Award given by English PEN, to which he responded with by writing of his hope of freeing his country from tyranny. Just a few weeks ago on March 5th, 2015, The International Press Institute (IPI) named him as its 67th world press freedom hero which is “given to journalists who have made significant contributions to the promotion of press freedom, particularly in the face of great personal risk” (The Guardian, 2015).

For Darwish’s bravery in the face of overwhelming political power and danger for a freer Syria, and his constant role as a humanitarian activist, his plight and his fight for his country are worthy of recognition.

Eyes in the Sky: Conservation Drones

Though it may come as a surprise to many people, one of the newest technologies to transform the process of activism has been the use of drones. What probably came to your mind right now were drones used by the military, the machines that have caused so much contention and controversy over how they are used and for what both in the US and abroad. But not everyone is opposed to drones flying over their skies to watch the activity on the ground. For some areas in Africa, these drones are different: their use is pushing the boundaries of ecological activism by helping to protect endangered wildlife.


The use of drones has become an essential part in helping park rangers conserve what are some of the most endangered species on the planet. Killing elephants for their tusks and rhinos for their horns has become an illegal multi-million dollar ivory trade business, with demand particularly high in Asia due to the black market. The hope is that these machines can serve as an aid or extra pair of eyes for the rangers, by trying to detect the poachers before they get to the animals. Their long range in the air allows them to cover over half a day’s walking within a matter of minutes, while their sensors and cameras track where the poachers are, how many, what kinds of weapons they are carrying are there, and what their proximity is to the animal (A longer list of what drones can and have done can be found here). The drones can also help to track the best and fastest route for the ranger to intercept and stop them, with the hope that this will add a measure of security both the animals and the rangers putting their lives on the line to protect them.


The drones themselves can be made quickly and easily using 3D printers with the favor towards small designs so as not to disturb the wildlife or tourists who visit the park. Some drones are even quipped with thermal imaging so as to track and even differentiate different animals at night. According to a report by BBC, “Rangers at the base could operate the drone via two laptops, one showing a map tracking the flight path, the other showing the UAV’s point of view through a high-definition camera”. The Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge  has also pushed the use of drones even further by integrating gadgets such as smart phones with their built in sensors and processing power. More information on drones and other conservation technology below:


But what I have found to be truly fascinating about these drones is not only how they are attempting to deter a culture of destructive opulence, but also how their use is changing the cultural idea around the technology itself. Where once activists rallied against drone surveillance activities for fear an invasion of privacy, now they are using them to strip away the isolation that poachers exploit to help save the lives of some of the most some of the most vulnerable creatures on earth.  If we continue down this road, what other goods could come of a technology that once was the nightmare of activists everywhere?

There is no denying that drones still have the potential for more harmful or malignant deeds, and that clear and enforceable regulations must be administered to ensure safety. But should their use be turned more towards protection and activism than destruction, their impact could truly be worthwhile. After all, if we have the technology, shouldn’t we use it to protect the world we live in?


Don’t Look Away: A Second Chance for Chavez

Recently we have all been swept up in the movements promoting equality and respect for women, minorities, and those in the LGBTQ communities. But among these rally cries for equality, there seems to be one group that is never mentioned: The homeless.  Homelessness has been a rising epidemic in the U.S, and can strike Americans of every age, color and religion. In fact, in 2014, the number of homeless reached 1,750,000 people, the statistics of which can be found here.

And yet, when approached by these people in need, many of us walk right past them.

Walking quickly past them, we pay little attention to their faces or their stories and forget them within seconds of our encounter. Though many may claim that their plight is due to the individual’s own actions, it should not be forgotten that institutional factors in our society can also contribute to the issue that many of us try to hide from ourselves as we look the other way.

But what happens when we don’t look away?

I did ask for one pose

I did ask for one pose

A few weeks ago when deciding how to show activism through photography, I started to wonder about this.  Coincidentally, a young freshman name Michael at the University of Michigan wondered the same thing about the very subject I was hoping to photograph, the man many of whom know as “guitar guy” who stands outside of Walgreens. This man’s name is Mat Chavez, and his story can be found at here at the gofundme site that was made for him.


This is a story in pictures of what happens when we don’t look away.

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A Satirical Call To Action, But Action Nonetheless

John Oliver, the host of the new satirical news show “Last Week Tonight”, has diverged from his straight and satirical news predecessors by becoming more than just a narrator of worldly events—he helps shape them.



In his segment on the the Tobacco Industry last week, Oliver delivered a scathing commentary of the industry’s practices of threatening to sue countries wanting “plain packaging” in hopes of decreasing smoking rates. Unlike a straight news show that would end the report there, Oliver seemed to think this wasn’t enough, and instead ended the show by calling for the audience to actually do something, i.e. spreading Jeff the Diseased Lung around the world

Meet Marlboro's new mascot...

Meet Marlboro’s new mascot…




Did you ever think about the politics of sugar?

Did you ever think about the politics of sugar?

The embedded activism that distinguishes “Last Week Tonight” , especially in this segment, is its “lack of commercial breaks, coupled with its status as a weekly show“(The Atlantic). This offers logistical benefits that allow “Last Week Tonight” to make a greater impact than many other news programs as Oliver can discuss topics that are dull, complicated, or unknown to the general public, which mainstream news media usually avoids.

With only two or three segments (compared to straight news’s myriad of short segments) Oliver also has uninterrupted time to delve much deeper into the history and problems of the event (such as the ridiculous legal actions taken by the Tobacco industry). And, unlike in straight news where context is limited due to time, placing the news event in context allows audiences to fully understand the situation without requiring extensive background knowledge.

The lack of sponsorship and longer segments in comparison to traditional news–to me– also lends Oliver a higher degree of trust. With no obligations or contracts, and a high volume of informative context behind him, Oliver can express his own uncensored opinion (usually incredulous) of topics, putting his own voice into the public sphere and opening a dialogue between himself, the audience, and his news subjects.

"You Don't need people's opinion on a fact. ...the debate on climate change should not be whether or not it exists, it's what we should do about it"- John Oliver

John Oliver does not pander to the idea of “balancing” opinion with fact to appease the gods of “objectivity”

Scott Pelley Is In My Living Room: A Review of CBS Evening News

Sitting down to my first evening news broadcast in years (or ever?), I’m surprised at the flashiness of the introduction. With dramatic images and music, I’m reminded more of opening titles for a movie than a show about (the usually morbid) news. Hoping that this increasingly important sounding music and narration is not leading to an over-dramatized report, I try to pay serious attention.

Well Good evening to you too Mr. Pelley

Well good evening to you too Mr. Pelley

          Click here to watch the online version

New York City frozen over

New York City frozen over

At first, I’m bewildered by what stories start off the news program: weather. Scott Pelley, a mixture of stern and amused, begins by talking about the record breaking cold temperatures. This three minute segment was followed by yet another weather segment explaining record warmth in the West. In all, the two weather segments took up more than five minutes, about 1/4th of the program.  This focus on the weather has struck me as odd. Considering the dramatic events that have happened in the last few weeks both domestically and abroad, not to mention the death of one of their own reporters, I can’t find these segments particularly “newsworthy”, or at least deserving of the lead-in story.

For the rest of the program however, the segments are pretty standard of “newsworthiness” with a nice, organized order.  First up are national news stories; Tax Snafu (an Obamacare glitch in taxes), the “American Sniper” Trial, and an interview with the Ferguson Police Chief. The next two stories deal with international issues; the coalition airstrikes on ISIS and rebels in Ukraine. The program then ends with a few small varied stories on a shows being sped up for commercials, northern lights, and a tale about a little girl’s dream to see snow.

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What’s surprising however, is the variance of time spent on each story. Although all the national stories are the standard three minutes, the international stories vary greatly; The Ukraine story took three minutes but the coalition airstrike (what I considered an important story) was a mere 30 seconds. Compare this to the three minute story devoted to a little girl wanting to see snow, and I’m starting to wonder about the priorities for this show, or if it’s just a slow news day.

Little Girl Sees Snow

Little Girl Sees Snow: Cute, but “Newsworthy”?

Considering the program’s limited amount of time, the large amount of contextual background given to most of the stories (but not you coalition airstrike) is quite admirable. However, within this digital age I feel that network news is running behind. Compared to internet based news stories embedding other articles and information, viewers are very limited in what they can learn as the program is limited by in their stories by time. And although CBS attempts to be tech savvy and reach a younger audience through Twitter and Facebook, it’s obvious that the content is still aimed towards an older generation.

Despite this, I would never get rid of the evening news. With a colorful and charismatic cast, the newscast gives what I think the digital experience lacks: a human face and feeling of connection. So Mr. Pelley, I look forward to your visit another night.

You Can See My Problem Now: Infographics the New “It” Factor

With campaigns such as HeforShe, NOMORE, and “Carry That Weight” focusing attention on sexual violence, the need to understand this cultural issue is more prominent than ever.  To gain audience attention, data visualizations (like infographics) may just be the new “it” factor.

Sexual Violence Statistics Source: University of Texas Health Services

Campus Sexual Violence Statistics
Source: University of Texas Health Services


The key to this infographic’s effectiveness comes from the simplicity of its visual tools. The first notable success comes from how few colors were used. When first looking at the image, the bright red against the pale blue drew me immediately to the most important information. Grabbed by the bright red, strong negative emotions were also evoked through the color’s connotations. For many, red connotes anger, passion, and danger, all of which are involved with sexual violence. Through these feelings, the danger that comes from these statistics is expressed without having to add any more extraneous information.

The pictures also served multiple purposes. First, their simplicity did not over-stimulating the reader (something I found to be a problem with many infographics), enhancing the information rather than distracting from it. Their placement also helped  block off and organize the textual data, keeping the infographic clean, organized, and easy to read.

Most importantly was the poignancy that such simple drawings conveyed: rather than just looking at statistics, the audience looks at shapes of human beings, men and women that represent us. By visually seeing how many women are sexually assaulted, and how many survivors actually come forward, the infographic is more visually striking than reading any statistic, and completely embodies how damaging the issue really is.

Compared to traditional journalism, the biggest difference is the infographics thematic approach to the issue compared to traditional media’s episodic coverage of campus sexual violence. Rather than focusing on a single incident, the infographic shows the overall problem which, in my opinion, places a greater weight on the issue than traditional media. This is also supported by the infographic’s placement of support services, something rarely given by traditional media in their attempt to remain neutral between those who believe there is a problem and those who don’t.

With its compactness of simple images, evocative colors, and address of the larger issue, I find little wrong with this infographic as it quickly and accurately conveys the most important information. Should more data visualizations be included to journalism, I feel that both journalists and audiences would benefit from their swift and simple representations of an issue.