Story Control

A new suite of tools allows the public to parse press coverage

Media Meter’s Focus map tracks which countries, like Russia, receive a lot of coverage in the global press. Allowing users to search within this data promotes awareness of what news we are (and aren’t) getting.

Back in February, MIT’s Center for Civic Media published a stunning series of graphics tracing press coverage of Trayvon Martin’s slaying, from a handful of Tweets to the most-covered story about race in the last five years. It wasn’t the first time researchers from the Center have traced a story to its roots using data from Media Cloud, a toolset that collects stories from more than 27,000 media outlets, and which the Center developed along with colleagues from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Until recently, such insights have been limited to the small set of researchers with access to the database, along with the requisite data-mining skills. But now researchers from the Center are working on a more far-reaching project: making their data public and accessible.

Media Meter, a new suite of tools, allows users to search through the database of news outlets, retracing coverage of a story. A prototype Dashboard tool lets users search for a keyword in the news—charting both the frequency of coverage and other words linked in the coverage. (For example, ‘“Boston” is linked with “marathon” and “bombing.”)

Another prototype is Focus, a geocoded map of newspaper, online, magazine, and broadcast coverage that users can use to determine which countries are covered most (the US, India) and which are covered least (Paraguay). “It’s [answering questions] in an automated fashion so we can make these statements,” says Rahul Bhargava, a researcher at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. “Does [coverage] match up with GDP? Does that match up with population?”

The team is aiming for a full rollout of the map software, along with other tools, by September. This will allow other teams to ask more nuanced questions of how the press shapes public opinion. “It’s sort of an empowerment story from our point of view,” says Bhargava. “We’re doing this stuff that allows people to do this kind of media criticism—it sort of keeps the media ecosystem healthy.”

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.