Annotating the news

Can online annotation tools help us become better news consumers?

Last fall, Thomas Rochowicz, an economics teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York, asked his seniors to research news stories about steroids, drone strikes, and healthcare that could be applied to their class reading of Michael Sandel’s Justice. The students were to annotate their articles using Ponder, a tool that teachers can use to track what their students read and how they react to it. Ponder works as a browser extension that tracks how long a reader spends on a page, and it allows them to make inline annotations, which include highlights, text, and reaction buttons. These allow students to mark points in the article that relate to what they are learning in class—in this case, about economic theories. Responses are aggregated and sent back to the class feed, which the teacher controls.

“We were looking at how to make sense of all of these different philosophies,” explains Rochowicz. “We had that one shared text that’s a foundational piece, and [students] are finding other texts to connect to it. And after they have all found and highlighted something, it informs a different sort of discussion, and it also shows you the sources everyone is looking at.”

To his surprise, the first time they used Ponder, Rochowicz realized that all his students had exclusively selected New York Times articles for their research. He instructed them to diversify their sources. Now, at the end of the school year, they regularly read and annotate content from The Washington Post, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Heritage Foundation, the Mitchell Report, The Nation, and The Atlantic, as well as various policy documents.

Though they might not describe it this way, Rochowicz—and many other New York City teachers who use Ponder to read news articles and primary sources with their students—are, in a sense, teaching news literacy by encouraging students to build more sophisticated and engaged news reading habits.

This turn toward interactive reading is driving the creation of a whole suite of annotation-type tools. Whether used for in-line commentary from journalists on primary documents, group annotation of subject relevant news in school, or collapsable context and commentary alongside news stories, Web-native tools for reading critically and communally online hold a lot of potential to help readers navigate the news. They allow online readers to interact with each other through reading communities—be they educational, professional, or social—as well as to make personal connections to texts that they might not otherwise be inclined to read deeply. And most simply, these tools can be used to improve the commenting process, which often is the most interesting part of reading online.

Alex Selkirk, Ponder’s founder, uses the software as his main news reading tool. He created it three years ago to share content in a curated social reading community. When an individual reader logs onto the site, he or she is prompted to create a “class” and invite others to join it. Then, like Rochowicz did for his students, they can create their own set of reaction buttons to annotate the text with, or they can use Ponder’s built-in ones.

In a similar vein, News Genius—part of Rap Genius, the popular website that collects and crowdsources annotation on rap lyrics—is a tool that allows news readers to upload and comment in-line on news articles and primary sources, such as the president’s annual State of the Union address, which was the first non-music item annotated on the site. Rap Genius’ popularity is due mostly to its army of “verified artists”—rappers, writers, and public figures—who annotate songs and articles, often providing insight that others can’t.

“Surfacing a professional within the conversation is something we wanted to do,” explains Rap Genius Chief of Education Jeremy Dean. “We want to privilege those voices to help the literacy project.”

Such voices include Sheryl Sandberg, the ACLU, Jeff Jarvis, Farhad Manjoo, and Felix Salmon, among many others. For journalists like Salmon, who has annotated many articles using News Genius, it’s also a tool to tell his own stories better.

“I’d kind of wanted something a little bit like it for a while,” he says. “And then I saw what Farhad did with that Snapchat statement, and there was this Twitter conversation between Farhad and me and [Business Insider’s] Joe Weisenthal and a couple of the people from Rap Genius saying that this is a great Web-native way of writing things. But it can get lost on the Rap Genius site and people want to have it on their own site.”

A few months later, the Rap Genius team created an embed button, which Salmon has used on his own blog to annotate his reaction to a piece by James Ball, and Shane Ferro has used in a similar way on Reuters.

Journalists are also using News Genius to comment on primary documents, telling a story through annotations rather than merely incorporating that source into a traditional news story.

“I think one of the great things about the internet is that most primary documents are online,” says Salmon. “And one of the weirdly less great things about the internet is that people don’t read them anyway.” He believes that part of the reason for this is that journalists aren’t good at linking to them, but another reason is that readers are bad at following links. “If you write an article and link to a primary document, even if you say ‘You should really read this, it’s really good,’ most people won’t,” he says. “So anything we can do to bring them front and center is a good thing.”

“In terms of literacy, we’re hoping to bring a better understanding of those primary documents through annotation,” explains Dean. Examples of this include Alexis Madrigal’s annotation of the transcript from a Google conference call about its self-driving car, embedded on The Atlantic, Felix Salmon’s annotation of Janet Yellen’s Federal Open Market Committee statement, embedded on Reuters, and Nicholas Carlson’s annotation of an email from Steve Jobs, embedded on Business Insider.

Annotation can also be useful to correct bad reporting such as the recent Newsweek article about the man (apparently) behind Bitcoin. (Here’s a Poynter piece about that process interviewing News Genius executive editor Liz Fosslein.)

“I think we’re in the early days of this and it appeals to people with a sort of bloggish sensibility, because blogs are conversations,” Salmon says. For Web-native journalists who are used to comments, conversations, and stories which react to each other, annotation is a welcome tool, especially as news organizations experiment with ways to make comments more useful. Both Quartz and Medium, for example, allow readers to comment on specific paragraphs rather than on a separate part of the page.

Other tool-creators experimenting in this space seek to personalize the reading experience depending on whether or not a reader needs extra information. For example, Dave Winer’s Fargo, an outlining tool that allows users to expand or collapse information as needed, has been used by Quartz to power Glass, its notebook about the future of TV, which presents information through a series of expandable lists. Similarly, two graduate students at MIT Media Lab, Kevin Hu and Alexis Hope, are working on FOLD, a context creation platform for journalists that allows them to add elements to a story that “fold” out from the primary text; they call these “curated tangents” in the form of maps, images, text, and GIFs that can be attached to different text modules in a story.

By helping readers, like Rochowicz’s students, become more aware of their news consumption habits through community commenting, and helping journalists, like Salmon, tell stories in a more engaging way, annotation tools—Ponder and others—can help readers grow more thoughtful about the news they consume.

“[Ponder allows students to] break apart issues and pull together their classmate’s perspectives on those issues,” says Selkirk, “in, I think, the truest sense of news literacy: to flesh out the issues and get beneath the surface.”

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City