Friday blog rescue: Corkboard on Compfight

Corkboard is a new venture put together by SJMC students and faculty, billed as “a place for literary journalists.” Each week in its “Pushpins” column, the editors offer tips for effective and creative writing. This week’s blog rescue brings you one of those tips:

While technically Compfight is a tool for designers, most of us digital journalists (and hell, anyone who wants to write for a living) are expected to know a little about design anyway. This site is a great way to quickly and easily search images available in the vastness of Flickr’s database of user-uploaded photographs. Should you decide to write a story about trying to eat a durian fruit or your pilgrimage to see the Quick Stop of Clerks fame, you can use this as a writing tool for reference photos or even (when properly attributed) as part of the story. We’re also asking for a photo with published submissions for Corkboard, so this may be valuable when you realize you don’t have a photo to submit alongside your winning prose.

So how is this better than plain old Google Image Search, or Bing? First off, Compfight searches exclusively in the Flickr database–this means that, in general, the photo quality will be higher, with most images showing up in high resolutions. For the photo illiterate out there, high res is good.

Second, Compfight allows you to sort images by the types of licenses on each photo–this means you can search for photos that you are allowed to be used elsewhere according to the rules the photographer has posted for sharing their work through a Creative Commons license. You’re not allowed to steal copyrighted images, but CC images can be used and remixed if they are properly attributed back to the original work and author, and the use of that image adheres to the artist’s stipulations within the CC license. Compfight’s filter for different types of CC licenses makes the process of finding legal images a lot easier than Google does.

Finally, Compfight is beautifully executed and fun to use. It may be vain, but the sight of seeing hundreds of Flickr images cascade across your screen after a good search is a genuine thrill, at least as thrilling as hunting for interesting web images can be. It also allows you to view hundreds of Flickr images at a time WITH their dimensions listed below each thumbnail, which makes the process of sorting through to find the closest image to what you have in your head that much easier. The site is an elegant and useful manipulation of what Flickr can do with the right software.

Get searching at Compfight here. Remember though, Flickr doesn’t always have the best safe search restrictions in place (anyone can post just about anything after all), so don’t search for anything NSFW if you might have someone judge you from over your shoulder.

Monday debate: Communicating about health care

Now that there’s a comprehensive health care bill on the way to President Obama’s desk to sign, it might be useful to consider how both progressive and conservative communication strategies fared over the past year of debate.  We’ve heard of “tea parties” and “death panels,” watched “town hall meetings” and “televised presidential forums”.  What can we learn from the communication failures and successes?  (Were there any of the latter?)

Today many of my online sources have pointed me to David Frum’s CNN online column where he ends with this provocative idea:

The vitriolic talking heads on conservative talk radio and shock TV have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination.When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say — but what is equally true — is that he also wants Republicans to fail.

If Republicans succeed — if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office — Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less and hear fewer ads for Sleep Number beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished.

For the cause they purport to represent, however, the “Waterloo” threatened by GOP Sen. Jim DeMint last year regarding Obama and health care has finally arrived all right: Only it turns out to be our own.


Friday blog rescue: Pharma advertising and the ethics of fear

From a student writing in our J 202 blog, Mass Communication Practices:

Have you seen this ad? A young woman follows a mysterious stream of glitter up an elaborate staircase. She is mesmerized by a dazzling perfume bottle that should be filled with something wonderfully alluring. Instead, as a cloud of mist clears, we realize that the bottle is emblazoned with the chilling words CERVICAL CANCER. The announcer apologizes, then explains that disguising the message as a perfume ad was the best way to draw viewers’ attention to a disease they need to know more about.Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

via Subtle Cervical Cancer Ads Raise Questions – Barbara Kantrowitz –

One of the sources accuses the advertiser of using fear to manipulate people into demanding the vaccine. Fear is a powerful weapon. Is it an ethical one? Where is the line between making people aware of a drug that can prevent deadly cancers and scaring them into getting vaccinated? Can you think of an ad campaign that used a fear appeal? Did it work on you? Did it work on others? When is scaring people justified?

Lots of people are trying to figure out whether ad campaigns can help change public behavior and stop us from texting while driving. AT&T is trying a non-fear-based social media campaign. Recently, a billboard went up on the Beltline in Madison, for the national Speak Up Or Else campaign against reckless driving. Here’s a shot from another city. The campaign Web site has TV spots. Are these using fear or humor or both? Are they effective? What social marketing tools can actually change our behavior?

Monday debate: Online databases for strategic communication and enterprise reporting

Over the weekend the Wisconsin State Journal ran an article about the salaries of UW-Madison and UW System faculty and staff.  While the article itself, limited to one page of the physical paper, could only highlight the extremes and averages of various salary types (I’m worth about five head football coaches, in case you were wondering), the paper took the additional step of making its entire salary database — which it had acquired from the state through an open records request — available online for public searching.

My curiosity about this database led me to the data resource center that has been slowly growing thanks to contributions by both the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times.  It’s filled with interesting local data from the deadly serious to the charmingly trivial.  Some samples:

and much more.

In my Introduction to Mass Communication course last week, I had explored a similar set of resources with my students.  In a discussion of strategic communication and public relations efforts related to think tanks, election spending, and government lobbying, I showed them that there are a whole range of organizations — both partisan and non-partisan — that collect and publish data on political persuasion activities in attempt to watchdog both private and public practices.  For example, the Center for Responsive Politics has tracked spending on elections for over a quarter-century.  The group OMB Watch has created to track government contracting.  And the organization Taxpayers for Common Sense even mashed up data on earmarks with a Google map so that users could hone in on pork-barrel spending in their own communities with ease.  Micah Sifry, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, called the use of such databases “sousveillance,” the view from below (as opposed to “surveillance,” the view from above).  The hope in such efforts is that citizens from all backgrounds and interests will be able to find, understand, and act on such transparent data.

But how do we realize this hope?  Do we in our many public roles with their many private demands — citizens, consumers, workers, students, parents, children — have the time, the resources, and the training to seek out and find, interpret and utilize, such rich data?  Transparency doesn’t just happen.  Extracting important data from the powerful institutions that produce it requires time, money, expertise, and legal authority (just like any kind of investigative reporting).  So does making that data actually “work” in the world for any type of social, political, or economic goal.  We’re right back to questions of the feasible and desirable role between information producers, information mediators, and information consumers.

Who is exploring the way today’s public-interest online data is produced, organized, distributed, and used?  And what could a research project on public databases reveal about how these practices are changing in a personalized new media information environment that’s experiencing rapid global, technological, and economic restructuring?

So, some questions for Monday debate. Whose responsibility is it to provide public data on social, cultural, and political-economic processes of public interest?  Do we believe that journalists and the largely private print, broadcast, or online organizations that employ them are willing and able devote the time and money to such data gathering and dissemination?  Should we demand that our public governmental, research, and regulatory institutions be more transparent and forthcoming with this information?  (And as taxpayers are we willing to pay the costs of such work?)  Or are data transparency processes increasingly becoming the job of non-governmental, non-profit organizations — both those claiming to act in the non-commercial, non-partisan public interest, and those acting on behalf of particular corporate, political, and activist projects in the world?

Even as we try to “save good journalism,” should we be trying to “save good data production” too?