Celebrating the First Amendment

The First Amendment to the Constitution is something to cherish. It allows Americans to speak, to assemble and to worship. We can report, publish and Tweet.

Each year, the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy sponsors First Amendment Day on campus. The day’s events include a reading of banned books, panel discussions and a keynote address. There’s even a First Amendment trivia contest at a local bar.

It all happens on Tuesday, Oct. 2. I hope to see you there. You can also follow the day’s events on Twitter.

UPDATE: Students in my editing course used Storify to recap the events of the day. See examples of their work here and here.


In defense of PowerPoint

An article in Politico today notes that Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, recently used PowerPoint in a campaign appearance. The story’s reporter, Roger Simon, takes that opportunity to lash out at Microsoft’s software:

Conducting a PowerPoint presentation is a lot like smoking a cigar. Only the person doing it likes it. The people around him want to hit him with a chair.

To be sure, PowerPoint can be a terrible tool in the hands of a bad presenter. A common problem is a presenter who reads each bullet point directly from the slide. No one likes to sit in a classroom or a conference room and endure that.

But PowerPoint can also be effective when used well. It’s among the tools I use in my courses. My goal with PowerPoint is for each slide to illustrate one idea or example. I also want each slide to be the starting point for discussion in class.

Bashing PowerPoint is a popular sport. So is bashing Twitter. People who dislike these ways of communicating information should look to the person using them, not the formats themselves.

UPDATE: Simon’s article is apparently a misguided attempt at satire. I didn’t get it. Regardless, my stance on PowerPoint is serious and unchanged.

Q&A with Melissa Kotacka on college admissions and social media

Melissa Kotacka is assistant director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is known on campus and beyond for her active and lively use of Twitter. In this interview, conducted by email, Kotacka talks about her job and how college admissions is changing in the era of online and social media.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. Oh, boy. Honestly, there is no “typical day” in college admissions. Our work is so cyclical that what we’re doing in September is vastly different from what we’re doing in April or November or June or January.

Our office has about 50 full-time staff, plus another 16-ish seasonal readers. I work on the recruitment side, which entails counseling students and families through the college search and application process; conducting information sessions and events on campus; staffing fairs, school visits, and events off campus; reading applications as a part of the admissions committee; and any “other duties as assigned” that pop up on any given day.

We refer to the fall as “travel season” because our recruiters are doing just that: traveling around North Carolina, across the country, and even internationally to meet and recruit the best and brightest students to Carolina. This is by far my favorite time of year, because while students (and parents) might be nervous, they’re mostly excited. We get to have conversations about goals and aspirations, and we also get to dispel some of the urban legends that float around among PTA circles.

Yesterday, I was in the office as one of our “deans of the day” (our equivalent of being “on call”). I met with a few students and a principal who visited our office, plus talked to many people on the phone who called for assistance. In between, I scheduled out-of-state school visits and college fairs (my colleague Damon schedules our N.C. travel).

Through the end of September, I’ll be in New York City and on Long Island. A day on the road usually entails three to four private visits to high schools, where we meet with students and counselors for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to talk about Carolina and our admissions process. More often than not, we also attend college fairs in the evening, so our days can stretch pretty long, since visits usually span the full school day and fairs usually run until 9 p.m.

Travel season also entails a lot of time in cars, airports and Panera/Starbucks. George Clooney’s character from “Up in the Air” has got nothing on your average admissions officer.

Q. Prospective students and their parents can get information about UNC in print and online, in course catalogs and on blogs. What is the approach of the admissions office in this regard?

A. Over the past few years, we’ve moved to a mostly electronic knowledge base. It’s more accessible for students and parents; fits with university goals of sustainability; and allows us to update materials more quickly (because as soon as you print 10,000 copies of anything, something changes).

Our goal is to be as accessible and informative as we can; online resources are a big part of that. Of course, we do have print materials available, but they’re meant more as a snapshot/teaser to encourage students to explore our online resources.

Starting last spring, we’ve been fortunate to have a team of interns from the School of Journalism working specifically on social media strategy. That has involved increasing our Facebook and Twitter presence and creating other projects to deliver information to students both on-demand and in an engaging manner.

The team I work with is also increasing our “virtual visit” presence through the use of Skype and Google Hangouts, which allows us to “visit” schools we might not be able to reach in person. For students who don’t have the time or resources to visit campus, online media and resources are invaluable in the college search process.

Q. You are prolific on Twitter. What do you and others in the admissions office hope to achieve there?

A. I started using Twitter as a way to stay informed about the various things happening on campus and to share those stories with prospective students.

As an office, we use Twitter as a major resource to collect stories about what students and faculty are doing NOW – for example, at a program in Salt Lake City last week, I was able to share that Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, was on campus speaking in Econ 125 that same morning. Twitter also helps us to share what we’re doing NOW: integration with Foursquare lets us “check in” to events and school visits; we post updates from our admissions blog; and we link to scholarships and other opportunities for prospective students.

As for individual staff, we find that the networking factor is huge – both on campus and off; it puts a human face to the people who are reading applications (we are real people with real lives who are not at all scary). It’s even helped us plan travel: while Damon was in Atlanta last week, a school counselor in Georgia who follows me invited us to visit and within the hour, it was scheduled.

Q. What are other colleges and universities doing with social media and student recruitment and admissions? What trends do you see emerging in the near future?

A. What timely questions: just yesterday, there was a #SocAdm12 discussion on trends and practices in social media usage for admissions purposes. Having a presence on the networks students use is just the beginning: We have to engage them too, lest we just be posting into a vacuum.

Many schools blog (UVAJohns Hopkins, and MIT); many tweet, both institutionally (UC-BoulderNCSU) and as individual staff (UVaDeanJ); some leverage Foursquare (DukeHarvard).

At an institutional level, many schools have YouTube accounts – UNC included – and this is helpful in our mission of showing students what our campuses are like. It’s one thing for me to stand behind a table at a college fair and tell you about life at Carolina; it’s another for you to watch a video of the Carolina Ukulele Ensemble performing on Polk Place or read a blog entry from a senior about her favorite Carolina moments.

There’s been a push in the past few years for colleges and universities to jump into the “next big thing!” for recruitment purposes, but I think this economy has pushed all of us to be more creative about how we leverage our time, money, staff, and resources; social media and other online resources are going to continue to be a big part of that.

UPDATE: In 2015, Kotacka started a new job as upper school college counselor at Carolina Friends School.

Dubious assertions in today’s “Mallard Fillmore”

The comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” frequently takes aim at the news media. On occasion, it goes after journalism education, usually under the title of “Meanwhile, at a journalism school near you…”

Today’s variation on the theme contains two dubious assertions:

  • The news media have trashed Mitt Romney’s Mormon beliefs.
  • Journalism professors wear ties.

I haven’t seen much evidence of either. Therefore, I respectfully request a correction.

Q&A with Alberto Cairo, author of ‘The Functional Art’

Alberto Cairo is the author of “The Functional Art,” a new book about infographics and visual journalism. He has extensive experience in the newsroom and in the classroom. In this interview, conducted by email, Cairo talks about the principles of infographics and data visualization, and how writers and editors can contribute to their creation.

Q. What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

A. “The Functional Art” is a book for designers and journalists mainly, although it can be useful for anyone who has to create charts, maps, diagrams and explanatory illustrations, even if he or she doesn’t have any experience in the field.

It is not a book about software, but about principles that can guide the effective design of graphics. And it is not written in a textbook-style, but as an essay. My main goal with it is to offer a comprehensive framework to understand all kinds of visual displays of information based on the idea that information graphics are, above all, tools for understanding.

I started writing the book years ago, when I taught infographics and visualization at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I tried to put together a list of readings for my students, I realized that there was not a single book that summarized the foundations of the discipline.

I also wrote it because journalists and designers sometimes get lost in the growing bibliography coming from related areas, such as statistic representation, cartography, scientific visualization, interaction design, etc. They don’t really know where they should get started or what are the common guiding principles and practices all those disciplines have in common.

Q. What role do writers and editors play in the creation of effective infographics?

A. Infographics and visualizations are a mix of copy and visuals (graphs, maps, diagrams). You cannot have a good graphic based on nicely designed visuals alone. You need good copy, organization, a solid structure, a clear focus, etc. That’s what writers and, above all, editors, can and should provide at first. But there’s more.

I usually say that an infographic should not be the product of a designer working alone with the occasional input from a reporter and an editor. That’s what happens in many newsrooms: writers work in their computers, and send some info to designers, who take care of the visuals.

That’s the wrong approach. A good infographic is always the product of teamwork. Editors and writers must get heavily involved in the information graphics in their newsrooms, sit with designers, sketch ideas out, do storyboards. Infographics are not about using software, and they are not just about illustration, charting, mapping or art.

The key skill to have to do infographics is not drawing, but schematizing ideas, stories, and concepts. Obviously, if you do know how to draw, that can help, but it is not mandatory.

That’s why I believe that anybody can learn to design information graphics to a certain level. And my experience has taught me that editors and writers are particularly good at it, even if they are a bit hesitant at first when I introduce them to charts and maps in my courses.

The reason many of those folks are so good (even if they don’t trust their own potential because, you know, they have been educated as “word people” in j-school) is that they are used to devise narrative structures based on raw information. They are used to extract meaning from data and from sources. They know how to create hierarchies. They spot what is important and what is background info.

All those skills lie at the core of infographics and visualizations. I can teach you the rest: a bit of graphic design and interactive design, how to use the software (Illustrator, Excel, even programming), what graphic shapes are appropriate depending on the data and the story, etc.

Q. We’re hearing and reading a lot about data visualization in journalism. You argue in the book that data visualization and infographics complement each other. How so?

A. An infographic is a tightly edited visual presentation of information. It is equivalent to a news story: a reporter gathers information, processes it, organizes it, makes sense of it, cuts out whatever is not relevant for the story and presents the results to the audience.

A visualization, on the other side, is a tool that a journalist or a designer develops for readers to explore a data set. A visualization doesn’t need to tell a particular story. Each reader will come out of the visualization with stories of his or her own. See, for instance, the interactive application that The New York Times developed about the 2010 Census data.

That’s a visualization, clearly, because it doesn’t really make any editorial point. This kind of project is also journalism, in my opinion, as it facilitates the access to relevant information, but it’s not an infographic per se.

That said, the distinction between infographics and visualization is not as clear as it seems. Take this graphic I made with a group of colleagues about how much Brazilian representatives spend on telephone usage every year.

You can easily argue that this is both an infographic and a visualization. On one side, it tells you the basics of the story. It highlights its most important points: Brazilian representatives spent a lot (in Brazilian terms) on telephone bills in the first eight months of 2011: more than $7 million (13 million reais). If you had to spend that amount of money calling a friend, you would be on the phone for 298 years, straight.

The graphic shows you the total and the ranking of the worst offenders. This is the “infographics” side of the story, what is usually considered traditional journalism: the headline, that is funny and striking (“298 years of conversation”), and the summary of the main data points.

But the graphic also includes a “visualization” side, which is that we let readers look for their own representatives, and filter by state and by party: on the big dot plot, you can look for particular candidates, click on each little circle to see how much each of them spent, and read the entire spreadsheet (click on “veja os dados completos”, which means “see all the data”). This is the “visualization” side of the graphic. So, in some sense, infographics and visualization are complementary.

Q. As people get news and information on mobile devices such as the iPad and smartphones, what does that mean for the future of infographics?

A. Designers and journalists will have to get smarter to present effective summaries of their data and stories and, second, to develop interfaces that let readers dig deeper into the information, in case they are interested.

A good infographic or visualization is like an onion: It should have several layers of information that readers can navigate. If you understand this principle, you will be able to apply it to any platform. Graphics on small screens have to find the balance between presenting short snippets and allowing depth.

Even if it doesn’t sound like an easy task, I am optimistic. I thing that tablets and smartphones are a new world to be explored, the same way that computer screens were the big thing more than a decade ago, when I started designing interactive graphics.

Learn more about Cairo’s book and follow him on Twitter.