Course redesign

I am revamping my courses for the next semester. First up is media interpretation and criticism. I just submitted a course redesign grant (fingers crossed), and here it is, in all its glory


Media Interpretation and Criticism is offered by the Department of Communication. It is listed in the common curriculum within “Understanding the Arts and Literature – Visual Arts, Music, Performance and Aesthetic Production.” It is also one of the foundational courses for the major in communication. Students who complete the course should:

  1. Understand how media texts are constructed.
  2. Interpret media texts, applying communication theories regarding aesthetics, interpretation, and criticism.
  3. Understand the role of ideology in shaping the creation and interpretation of messages, and the role of messages in shaping ideology
  4. Use visual, rhetorical, and technological means to produce media texts.
  5. Recognize the role of active audiences in using media messages to construct meaning and personal identity.

The course redesign incorporates Media Interpretation and Criticism into the Trinity Food Project, “a coalition of students, faculty, support staff, and administrators at Trinity University, provides an inter- and multi-disciplinary lens through which to explore the numerous issues surrounding food” (Trinity Food Project, 2012). Media Interpretation and Criticism supports the TFP’s goals through its combination of theory and practical experience.

Proposed changes

Media Interpretation and Criticism covers two areas: (1) Visual storytelling and graphic design, and (2) theoretical approaches to media interpretation. These components support the goals of the course, and will remain in place. The proposed changes address the following: (1) exploring theories of media interpretation through the lens of food, (2) providing practical experience in graphic design, data visualization, and visual storytelling.

Food as an exploration of theory

For the purposes of this course, media interpretation is a purposeful activity, which is informed by theory.  This includes semiotics, rhetorical analysis, queer theory and other approaches that students can use to examine media content.  In the redesigned course, students will be exposed to a key text (for example, Hall’s The Work of Representation), and will be given additional readings that illustrate the concept(s) through food. The following table provides some examples (see bibliography for full citation):

Topic Primary readings Additional readings
Graphic design/visual storytelling Dick – Selection from “Film, space and image” Kaufman, Debbie does Salad.
Meaning making (representation) Stuart Hall, The work of representation Kniazeva, M., & Belk, R. W.Retzinger, J
Ideology Mittell, Screening America Mohrfeld, J., & Leverette, M
Gender Trujillo (hegemonic masculinity)Ott & Mack, feminist theory SwensonParkin
Queer theory Ott & Mack, Queer analysis To be determined
Race / ethnicity Ewen & Ewen Deck
Postmodernism O’Donnell Miles

Assessment will be take place through two types of activities.

1. Low stakes assignments: Two pass-fail assignments will assess student mastery of the material. First, students are expected to contribute regularly to an online discussion group, where they can share insights and examples that illustrate core concepts, or add to ongoing discussions. They will also complete a series of guided reading responses, whereby they receive two to three questions about the reading, or are asked to deconstruct a media text applying a concept they have read about. These assignments are to be completed outside of class.

2. Theory rage comics: Rage comics are web comics that can be generated easily online. They are commonly used to tell stories. However, comics can also support other learning goals in this course. In this assignment, students will create rage comics to illustrate key concepts within theories covered in class (e.g., encoding/decoding). Students will deliver a 10-minute presentation explaining the concept through the comic. A short 3-to-5-page essay will also be required.  The essay explains the concept, and review contemporary examples of its application in scholarly work.  This assignment will be further developed in Deconstructing Food Advertisements, as it lays the basis for a literature review.

Food as a practical introduction to graphic design and storytelling

One of the goals of the course is to introduce principles, tools and techniques of graphic design and visual storytelling. These activities help students become more aware of the constructed nature of media messages, by creating their own content. Students will complete the following activities:

1. My food poster

Students will document their eating habits for a period of seven days. They will then create an 11 x 17 inch poster illustrating their food/beverage consumption, including information about the nutritional value of food and/or its origin. A short essay detailing their creative decision-making process will accompany the poster. This activity assesses student grasp of graphic design principles (e.g., rule of thirds, contrast, affinity, repetition). An additional benefit might be greater self-awareness about food consumption, nutrition, eating habits, or food sources.

2. Delicious peanut butter & jelly sandwich commercial

Media interpretation and criticism introduces visual storytelling. In the past, the course’s final editing project has been the creation of parody trailers of popular films. In the re-designed course, students will be working in groups to create a 30-to-60 second video that applies a theory and/or concept from the course to an advertisement for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. An alternative version of this assignment would have students create a slide show using power point or keynote. This version will be used in the event of scheduling conflicts and/or equipment availability issues.

Deliverables include: (1) A complete storyboard detailing various shot sizes, locations, sound design, and camera movement, (2) the video itself, and (3) An individual paper detailing the creative process (decisions, technical requirements, difficulties, and suggestions for dealing with common problems). This paper must also explain how theory informed the video. The PB&J project assesses students’ grasp of theory, and their ability to apply principles of graphic design and visual storytelling, including shot composition, basic editing techniques, including the rudiments of sound design. For communication majors, this lays the groundwork for more advanced production courses. For non-majors, it reinforces an awareness of the constructed nature of media.

3. Deconstructing food advertisements

This assignment introduces students to textual analysis, which is a common method of media interpretation. In textual analysis, we are asked to look at the media from a theory-informed perspective, in order to uncover the dominant reading of a text.  Textual analysis also considers the contexts of production and distribution of a text. The textual analysis will assess the following: (1) grasp of theory and ability to produce theory-informed criticism, (2) critical thinking and argumentation, as students must provide evidence as to why they believe their interpretation represents a dominant reading, (3) information literacy, as students must expand their understanding of theories discussed in class through their own research, which will be presented as a short literature review.


Jan 16 – Class starts
Feb 8 – You are what you eat project
Feb 28 – Theory rage comic
March 8 – Delicious PB&J project pitches
March 28 – Deconstructing food advertisements
April 10 – Delicious PB&J Storyboards
May 10 – Delicious PB&J videos and papers
Low stakes assignments are ongoing.

Selected bibliography

Deck, A.A. (2001). “Now then – who said biscuits?” The black woman cook as fetish in American advertising.  In S. A. Inness (Ed.) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, pp. 69-93. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ewen, S & Ewen, E. (2008). Tablier Rasa. In S. Ewen & E. Ewen, Typecasting: On the arts and sciences of human inequality (rev. ed). New York, NY: Seven Stories Press

Hall, Stuart. The work of representation

Kaufman, Debbie does Salad. The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography

Kniazeva, M., & Belk, R. W. (2007). Packaging as Vehicle for Mythologizing the Brand. Consumption, Markets & Culture,10(1), 51-69. doi:10.1080/10253860601164627

Miles, E. (1993). Adventures in the Postmodernist Kitchen: The Cuisine of Wolfgang Puck. Journal Of Popular Culture, 27(3), 191-203.

Mohrfeld, J., & Leverette, M. (2008). Imbibo Ergo Sum: New Belgium Brewery and the Myths of McEmpire (Joint Top Paper). Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1.

Retzinger, J. (2010). Spectacles of Labor: Viewing Food Production through a Television Screen. Environmental Communication, 4(4), 441-460. doi:10.1080/17524032.2010.520020

O’Donnell, V (2007). Postmodernism. In V. O’Donnell, Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Ott, B.L & Mack, R.L (2010). Queer Analysis. In B.L. Ott & R.L Mack, Critical media studies: An introduction.

Ott, B.L & Mack, R.L (2010). Feminist theory. In B.L. Ott & R.L Mack, Critical media studies: An introduction.

Parkin, K (2001). Campbell’s soup and the long shelf life of traditional gender roles. In S. A. Inness (Ed.) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, pp. 50-67. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Swenson, R. (2009). Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food. Critical Studies In Media Communication,26(1), 36-53. doi:10.1080/15295030802684034

An entry from my research diary.

I wrote this post to model what a research diary entry could look like, for my Latin American Media course. It’s a little rough, but I wanted to set an informal tone because I thought that if I did that, students would be more inclined to write freely. I wrote about the research diary in a previous post.


A day in the life of Dr. Medina (or how I learned to love Kony 2012)

Let me start by saying this… I decided to write the Kony parody essay because I was very annoyed by Kony 2012. I kept reading all of these really negative reviews about the video’s assumptions of orientalism and white man’s burdenHowever, I didn’t want to spend months of my time trying to examine orientalism in Kony 2012. I wanted something different, so after giving it some thought, I realized that I was really interested in parody. More specifically, I thought I could make the argument that parody through YouTube is an example of participatory culture. So I figured I’d educate myself on both parody and participatory culture, in order to come up with the literature review for the project. I got done writing that sometime in June, and I also selected the videos at around the same time.

Now that selection was challenging. I didn’t realize that so many people mislabel things as parody. I mean, if you use an academic definition of parody, which is what I did, many of the videos that claim to parody Kony 2012 are just making fun of it. It’s not the same thing. A parody intends to mimic elements of the original, often in an exaggerated manner TO MAKE FUN OF IT. No mimicry? no parody. Furthermore, parody is really a critical art form (Bakhtin says so!). Parodists can point out the flaws in an argument. That, in itself, is a form of socio-cultural critique, and that’s what drew me to this project.

Anyway, I ended up with a list of selection parameters, which may sound totally arbitrary, but they helped me immensely. As far as I know, there’s no “how to pick YouTube videos” magical guide out there. Nope, you have to figure that out on your own, so I said I’d only look at videos uploaded in April, that could be considered user-generated content. The videos also had to have over 1000 views, and they had to fit the definition of parody I am using. I also decided to look only at content with intelligible audio, as I found that several videos that fit the above mentioned criteria, weren’t useful at all because I could not understand the narration. Also, as a safety precaution, I downloaded all the source material to my laptop. I did not want to run the risk of videos “disappearing,” and if that were to happen, I’d probably have to re-think whether or not to keep them in the sample. I thought I’d cross that bridge if I got to it.

And I did. It happened in two ways. First, I had selected a video called Yoda 2012. It was perfect, except for one thing. It was not user-generated content. As it turned out, it was produced by The Poke, which  a British version of The Onion. Another YouTuber cut out the final credits of the video, and then posted it as their own. I had already taken extensive notes about it, but I had to drop it, and that wasn’t the only instance of wasted work. I also had a video called Giovanni 2012. This one was most definitely user generated. However, when I revisited my sample after a few weeks off, it had been made private. I had a downloaded copy of it, but I decided that it would be unethical to use it. The person who created it had reasons to retrieve it from public view, and I wasn’t about to ask why, or just take advantage of the fact that I had a copy, so that was that.

After these two experiences, I went back to my original selection parameters. I decided to keep April as my reference month for the publication, but I added that the videos had to come from accounts in good standing. Whomever posted the recut Yoda 2012 video had their account suspended, and that’s how I ended up realizing that it was recut. I am very glad that I did.

I have now been working on and off on the essay for a few weeks.  I have a whole first draft completed, and my thinking has somewhat changed. As I was looking into YouTube, I realized that there’s more to parodies on the site than criticism. These videos are also being produced within a commercial platform that provides incentives to individuals who are willing to host advertisement on their videos. It’s an issue that appeals to my darker, political economy side, and I’m in the process of exploring it more fully.

More to that later.

Mentoring with blogs

I began experimenting with blogs in 2005, as a way to promote collaborative writing in the classroom. I have to say that my first experience was a case of unbridled enthusiasm for technology, but I was utterly unprepared for what would happen. I had bought into the notion of the digital native, that mythical creature that is practically born with a silver keyboard in his or her hand, and that can seamlessly float from one technology to the next. Needless to say that this experience taught me a lot about how people think about and use technology. It’s not as simple as people like Marc Prensky make it sound.

My first attempt was in a remedial writing class. I was an adjunct, teaching at Ave Maria College of the Americas (now Ave Maria University – Latin American Campus) in San Marcos, Nicaragua. I wanted a way for students to post quick responses to simple questions, so that they could practice their grammar and spelling. What I did not expect was that my students would get bogged down by the technology, which became a distraction that took attention away from the true goal of the assignment. I never tried it again with that course, even though I taught it every semester I was at AMCA.

My next foray went slightly better. In fact, I started this blog because of it. I modeled my blogging assignment after Danielle Stern’s portfolio assignment, a version of which can be found here.  I also decided that if I was going to use a blog to mentor students as they made sense of course content, I should be writing as well. I started producing mini-essays, which used multi-media examples to illustrate course content. All of them are filed in the “class notes” category of this blog.

There are problems with this approach, though. You have to be very selective with the videos you include, because even though blogs make it possible for us to write with multimedia, we have no control over YouTube. Copyrighted content might be perfect to illustrate a point, but it is also likely to disappear. So now, I’m actually thinking about going back and cleaning house. The other issue to think about is the public nature of blogs. I may choose to make my writing public, but my students’ privacy needs to be protected. At a minimum, they should have a choice in the matter. That said, it is easier to protect student privacy when everyone is contributing a “centralized class blog,” rather than using the “hub-and-spoke” model (see Mark Semple’s post). I can create the blog as a private space when it’s centralized, but I can’t guarantee that in the “hub-and-spoke.”

That leads me to my current thinking about blogs. Part of it was inspired by Mark Semple’s entry on Professor Hacker. The other part came from reading about research diaries. First, I really liked the idea of creating different roles for students, which is something that Semple discusses. I find that it is a good way of giving them experience in different types of writing.  I adopted Semple’s roles (first reader, respondent, searcher), divided the class into teams, and created a posting schedule for them. I also created a rubric for the assignment, all of which can be accessed here.

I also became interested in using a research diary . The benefits diaries have been extensively documented, especially in terms of their value for the professional development of teachers (e.g., Jarvis, 1992). However, diaries can fulfill similar functions for researchers. They are a tool for reflection (Borg, 2001; Janesick, 1998). Borg specifically discusses several advantages of research diaries. They establish a record of project development, document past ideas and their subsequent evolution, help organize procedures, and document decision-making (p. 171). As I envisioned it, the diaries would also support collaboration among students.  They were expected to read and comment on their peers entries, and were encouraged to share sources, insights, and tips.

In terms of classroom management, the diaries helped me keep track of what students were doing, which allowed me to step in at the appropriate times, rather than waiting for their project’s conclusion.  The assignment description is available here. Since the assignment is still ongoing, I can only offer some preliminary thoughts as to its assessment:

1. Making the diaries into a relatively low-stakes assignment made a difference. Students contributed very detailed entries.

2. Modeling portions of the research process and sharing my own experiences as a researcher may have also been beneficial. It set the tone for the blog, and it may have reduced the level of stress that comes with assignments in general.

3. Students used the comments feature of the blog to brainstorm, provide feedback, and share resources. Peer reviewing has been ongoing, judging from what they have documented on the blog, and also by what they have expressed to me during office hours.

I am still trying to find ways to improve these blogging assignments, and I am thinking of adding some kind of an exit interview  if I decide to repeat this project. As it stands, their final reflection is a built-in tangible assessment of the experience, but I feel short interviews would be very beneficial for me, as the person who designed this assignment.

Anyway… work in progress.


Works cited:

Borg, S. (2001). The research journal: A tool for promoting and understanding researcher development. Language Teaching Research. 5(2), pp 156-177.

Janesick, V. (1998). Journal writing as a qualitative research technique: History, issues, and reflections. Qualitative Inquiry. 5(4), pp. 505-524.

Jarvis, J. (1992). Using diaries for teacher reflection on in-service courses. ELT Journal . 46(2), pp. 133-143

Once more, with feeling

NBC, the licensed broadcaster for the London Olympics, used the closing ceremony as the lead in for its new show, Animal Practice. Would you like to know what the peacock used as the lead out?

They used The Who’s performance at the closing ceremony.

A good lead in is always expected to boost the ratings of the show that follows. That is why broadcast networks often choose to premiere new offerings after big events, such as the Superbowl or the closing ceremony of an olympic. The hope in this case is that  Animal Practice will manage to hang on to the closing ceremony audience, which will allow NBC to declare its decision a success.

I guess we’ll have to wait for Nielsen to publish the ratings, but maybe not. For example, CBS already considers the lead-in effect is considered a given, even before any numbers are available.

I have no doubt that there will be a lead in effect. How big it will be remains to be seen.

#NBCFail and the new Heidi Game (updated)

I have been watching the olympics faithfully, but not on NBC. It’s one of the unexpected benefits of visiting my homeland, Nicaragua. Unlike NBC, our local licensee, Canal 10, is showing the London games live, and though their commercial breaks are often clumsy, at least they’re not the subject of a widespread backlash, nor has anyone from Canal 10 taken to Twitter to complain about whinny viewers. Nope, that was Vivian Schiller, NBC’s Chief Digital Officer.

I understand tape delays. It’s like Les Moonves says, if you don’t use the tape delay, you wouldn’t have anything to show during prime time. If you make your money from selling commercials, prime time is where you want to show your premium content. The thing is, though, that you can still monetize the olympics while airing the signature events live, and without infuriating your audience. In Canada, CTV is doing just that. Its live telecast of the opening ceremony broke audience records for Canada, just like NBC’s did for the US. The big difference is that while NBC is garnering a lot of ill will from the audience that uses social media, Canadian viewers love CTV. I just wish NBC would stop pretending that tape delays are live. Why not call the olympic prime time coverage what it is, a highlights show?

However, the issue is not just about tape delays. American audiences are using Twitter to complain about NBC’s handling of the olympics as a whole. For instance, their decision to replace Akram Khan’s tribute to the victims of the London bombings of 2005 with an interview with Michael Phelps drew plenty of criticism.

NBC felt the edit was justified, though. It’s something routine, they said. Moreover, they did not stream the opening ceremony because they insist that it was just too complex for the internet. The opener needs context, which their anchors, Meredith Viera, Matt Lauer and Bob Costas would provide . The thing is that the context included memorable gaffes, such as Meredith Viera’s offhand comment about Tim Berners-Lee, and Matt Lauer’s quip about Madagascar. If this was an attempt at humor, Viera and Lauer failed, at least according to those annoyed viewers who took to Twitter.

As if this wasn’t enough, NBC has repeatedly spoiled its own primetime broadcast. The network holds back the main events, such as the Ryan Lochte – Michael Phelps show down in the 400 IM, only to reveal the outcome prior to the telecast. Missy Franklin’s gold medal performance in the pool was likewise spoiled, when the network decided to air a promo of her interview in the Today Show just minutes before showing the actual swim.

Spoling is nothing new. It’s a common activity that has emerged within what Henry Jenkins and others have come to call participatory culture. Spoiling is like a game, a challenge that extends the pleasure that people get out of watching television (see Jenkins, 2006). However, when NBC spoils itself, there is no challenge and no skill required. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how participatory cultures operate online. These are cultures that take shape because of the technologies that allow people to create, share, and debate easily, and to feel that “their contributions matter” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robinson, 2009, p 7).

NBC’s heavy handling of criticism on Twitter shows the opposite. The network clearly underestimated the backlash its complaint against Guy Adams would garner. Alerted by Twitter, NBC filed a complaint against Adams, a freelancer for The Independent, and got him  suspended from Twitter  for publishing Gary Zenkel’s email address. Zenkel is the president of NBC Olympics, and Adams encouraged irate tweetizens to email their complaints to this NBC executive. This is a violation of the Terms of Service, according to Twitter, though it is debatable that a corporate email should be considered private information. If it is, discontented twitter users didn’t buy it, and neither did The Independent and other critics. In fact, the entire incident was characterized as censorship of the worse variety, and also as hypocritical. After all, Spike Lee was not banned for tweeting what he thought was George Zimmerman’s home address. Twitter took plenty of flack for its role, and it reinstated and apologized to Adams. NBC rescinded its complaint, and now the network admits that they “didn’t initially understand the repercussions” of their action against Adams. That’s a pretty big admission. It makes me wonder if NBC understands how Twitter operates as a culture.

Granted, the peacock network is achieving its ratings objectives, but it has done so at the expense of the goodwill of some of the most media savvy fans of the olympics. These individuals are part of a new type of culture that has been enabled through our ability to connect, access, and share information. Yes, American audiences are watching NBC, unless there are other choices. Some of the more media savvy viewers are already bypassing NBC altogether. It’s not that hard. Just go to Reddit or Lifehacker, or read Jeff Jarvis’ column and you can learn all about it.

It’s obvious that today’s audiences are more savvy and can become vocal quite easily because the tools to express discontent are readily available. It’s the same tools we use to find out the results of olympic competitions before NBC’s primetime telecast. However, NBC goes on, and I can’t help but wonder if the peacock network is intent on matching the infamous Heidi Game of 1968.

To NBC’s credit, they did apologize for the Heidi Game. As of this writing, they haven’t acknowledged the barrage of negative comments posted on their Facebook page, and the only gesture to the audience, as far as I can tell, is that Jim Bell, executive producer of the olympic telecast, has responded to complaints through Twitter. For instance, here’s what he said about spoiling the results.

It’s a start, but is it enough? Bell also shared this entry from Business Insider on Twitter. I don’t think that something  titled  “Shut your pie-holes, people: NBC’s Olympics Coverage is Perfect” is going to win too many points for NBC. Surprisingly, the thousands of Twitter users availing themselves to the #NBCFail hash tag haven’t latched on to that one.

Let’s just hope that NBC gets better at harnessing social TV for the next olympic games. After all, they did buy the rights until 2020.

Pink nightmares

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation has been a behemoth in the fight against breast cancer. This week, though, SGK is in the middle of a PR nightmare regarding its decision to discontinue its support to Planned Parenthood. According to the Komen’s founder and CEO, the decision is not politically motivated. It has nothing to do with abortion, but everything to do with a policy changes meant to ensure “you are granting money to the right people.”

In this case, the right people are those organizations who are not under “formal investigation for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities,” reports Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. 

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable policy. Why would anyone want to fund questionable organizations? However, Goldberg’s probing reveals a political agenda. Indeed, this decision was about severing ties with the most important provider of reproductive health services in the United States. These services, of course, include abortions, and Komen finally decided to veer openly to the right on this controversial issue. Komen applied its new policy to PP, which has been the target of a congressional inquiry since September because, according to Representative Cliff Stearns (R), the organization might be using federal funding to pay for abortions.

However, this entire prologue is not the reason I’m decided to write this piece. What makes the Komen vs PP debacle interesting to me is its social media dimension. It makes me wonder whether or not organizations like Komen take social media seriously, or if they merely think of it as an additional outlet for their press releases. You see, before the controversy exploded, Komen’s Facebook page was a bulletin board. The organization would post news tidbits, like this one

After Komen made its defunding of PP public, though, anger flooded its Facebook page. These comments were added to Nancy Brinker’s birthday thread after the announcement

Komen is the latest public entity to suffer the wrath of social media users. Yes, that wonderful outlet works so well in the PR mix also makes it very easy to express dissent, discontent, and outright fury. More importantly, it increases the speed of protest, as Andrew Rasiej of New York Tech MeetUp pointed out to TheWrap

“There’s a new political and media ecology that social networking provides and it’s not controlled by the mainstream media […] It’s controlled by citizens who are able to wield power at a speed that has the mainstream media, the politicians and the institutional players in shock.”

Often, media analysts point out that the power of social media lies in its ability to organize dissenters. However, we should also look at social media’s ability to aggregate discontent. Indeed, we can’t think of this backlash as the result of an organized effort. We should look at it as the result of decentralized actions that coalesced because of social media. We use the social web to connect with each other, but connecting isn’t just about sharing pictures of our pets. We share information, we comment on Facebook pages, we use hashtags, and we spread of memes. The savviest organizations and individuals know how to channel these routine activities into movements. Yet what the organizers of virtual protest really do is guide our clicks in the desired direction. That’s very different from asking us to occupy a public park. Clicking, using a hashtag, signing a petition, changing our profile picture, or sharing a picture costs us very little effort, yet the cumulative effects can be very powerful. Planned Parenthood understood this much better than Komen.

I took this screen capture from Planned Parenthood’s album on Facebook. It was shared over 22 thousand times. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood added this picture below to the album, after Komen reversed its funding policy changes and apologized to “the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”

In comparison, what was Komen doing with their social media? According to Kivi Miller, during the initial stages of the crisis, “The only Komen action on their Facebook page had been to delete anti-Komen comments, so the ratio of negative to positive looks more like 10 – 1 instead of the 80 – 1 (and even higher this morning) on Twitter.” Aside from that, Komen carried on as it would under normal circumstances. For example, as Miller noted, Komen re-tweeted a report from FoxNewsLatino on January 30.

Komen did not address their funding decision on Twitter until February 1, when they released Nancy Brinker’s video statement (posted above). Worst of all, Komen’s Twitter feed today had been dedicated to debunking a supposed partnership with Discount Gun Sales, to market pink handguns for the cure.

Now that Komen has reversed its funding decision, they will have to re-build their brand. The damage is significant, judging from some of the reactions posted to their Facebook page. The damage has nothing to do with breast cancer, or Komen’s mission. It has everything to do about their abandoning their primary focus, breast cancer prevention, awareness, and funding for research.

Before the PP debacle, I counted Komen as one of the savvy organizations. Their pink ribbon campaigns and partnerships were Facebook darlings. In fact, you could say that Komen took Facebook Pages best practices guide to heart. It uses its page to  “join the conversation, share their stories, and build a meaningful dialogue with their supporters and volunteers.” Unfortunately, Facebook’s handy guide doesn’t address the other side of the meaningful dialogue, the fact that it is public, and that involves people, not sheeple. The lesson here is that one should never assume “Facebook Likes” mean complete agreement with every policy decision.

Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning

Pecha Kucha 20×20.

This summer, a group of faculty members at Trinity University are experimenting with the Pecha Kucha presentation format. If you have never heard of Pecha Kucha, it “is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images forward automatically and you talk along to the images.” The format was originally created by architecs, and it made its debut in Japan. The rationale behind it is very simple: Presenters often talk waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much, and the 20×20 format forces one into succinctness.

I presented my Pecha Kucha today, and I was surprised by how much it helped me focus and narrow down my topic to the bare essentials. Usually, I’m used to either blabbing on and on for an hour, in lectures to my students, or figuring out how to keep an audience interested for 15 minutes during a conference. With the Pecha Kucha format, though, I really struggled to get those 20 images down, and to time them correctly.

Of course, not being a graphic designer, my images were actually keynote slides, and my topic was television (it’s what I do). Here is what I came up with:

I put this together on Keynote, which also allowed me to record the audio from one of my practice runs. Both things were a first for me, and I found that it was very easy to do. Now, I’m pondering how to incorporate this presentation format into my fall courses. The format lends itself for brainstorming about ongoing projects. An added benefit, at least for my media students, is that putting one of these together challenges your creativity, and can teach you a thing or two about how to best use presentation tools, such as PowerPoint and Keynote. Thoughts? Please feel free to comment.

If you are interested in Pecha Kucha presentations, the Pecha Kucha 20×20 website has interesting ones you might want to check out. There may also be links to Pecha Kucha events in your city.

Google +

Getting an invitation to Google +, if you’re interested in social media at all, feels like finding a golden ticket to the Wonka factory. It’s rare, and when you finally get it, you access an exclusive space that probably few among your Facebook friends are privy too. In my case, I have 100+ FB friends, yet only about 7 are on Google+. The reason is pretty simple: Google is throttling access to their social media platform. Yesterday, July 6th, they opened up a brief window of opportunity. Their aim was to double their user base. They must have achieved their goal very quickly, as the window shut down within hours.

I managed to get on the platform. An invite that had been sent to me on July 5th finally made it through, and now I’m part of the beta test group. I was able to send out a couple of invites, but as far as I can tell, only two people were able to join. I also tried a workaround posted on cnet. Still waiting to hear on that one as well, and I have serious doubts that it still works. In the mean time, this is my take on Google +.

Beta testing hype: When restriction translates into interest.

Google beta tests are not always restricted. In fact, anyone can go to Google Labs and test out their prototypes. We hardly ever hear about low profile projects, like Google Transliteration, Follow Finder, or Google Body, and for good reason. Many ideas probably don’t make it past the initial testing phase. In the meantime, though, we are helping Google with our free labor as beta testers. In return, we get to play around with prototypes.

Google’s high profile launches are another matter.  Gmail and Google Wave, for example, were both tested under an invite only model.  Gmail started as a very restricted service. Invitations were hard to come by, as Google only allowed its users to invite two additional people to the test, according to the Boston Globe. For Google Wave,  the company invited 6,000 developers to the beta test, and then rolled out the product to an additional 100,000 users.  I was never able to get an invite for Gmail, but I did manage to finagle one for Google Wave. It just wasn’t what I expected, and I jumped off the wave within a week. I wasn’t the only one, apparently, as Google abandoned Google Wave last year.

Restricting the beta test certainly keeps Google from exceeding its capacity to sustain a social network. Yet it also achieves something else. The restriction just makes Google + more desirable. The early adopters do a great deal of word of mouth marketing for Google. We write about our experience on the site, and we offer our invites to Facebook friends. The truth is that we want them on Google +, because the whole point of a social networking platform is to be social. If none of our friends are on Google+, who are we supposed to interact with?

Right now, we all seem to be hanging out with other geeks, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Everett Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations, described the process whereby innovations, new ideas, and new technologies spread. According to Rogers, one can categorize individuals according to their innovativeness, that is, their willingness to try an innovation. The first category, which Rogers calls “innovators” is made up by individuals who are willing and able to take greater risks. What makes them innovators, though, is not merely the fact that they can take risks. It is the fact that they have access to the innovation before anyone else, often because they have social contacts with the creators of the innovation. In this case, we should consider technology bloggers, like Pete Cashmore or Leo Laporte, to fit this category.

The next category is the early adopter. Like the innovators, they are willing and able to test out the innovations, but unlike the first group, early adopters lack the direct access to the epicenters of innovation. They are just chomping at the bit to get in, however, and when they do, early adopters are key. They do a lot of the leg work that leads to higher adoption rates of the innovation. In the case of Google+, early adopters like myself are not only testing out features on the site. We are also actively trying to get our friends into Google+. Don’t be surprised when some of your FB friends start posting messages on their wall, offering to send invites to whomever wants them. That’s how Google+ will spread for the time being.

One of the interesting things about the launch of Google+ has been the sporadic availability of the invites. Indeed, Google+ opens up the site, enables users to invite friends, and then clamps down again. No one knows when this bursts Google generosity will happen, or how long the portal will remain open. It can be a few hours or barely minutes, which is why the Los Angeles Times suggests that if you want be an early adopter for Google+, your best bet is to check the Google+ site periodically. Perhaps then you’ll get lucky.

Google + features: My favorite things (of the one’s I’ve actually tried)

By now, there are dozens of reviews about Google + features. Circles and hangouts are the most popular. Circles is essentially a different way of organizing the people you follow. By default, Google+ gives you four categories, friends, family, acquaintances, and following. The labels are self explanatory, but in case you miss it, Google+ provides you with a definition of what they mean by these terms. Friends, for example, are “your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with,” whereas Following is people you don’t know at all.

You can argue that Facebook and Twitter also allow you to create different categories and lists of friends, followers, and people you follow. However, I’ve found working with Twitter lists is very awkward. Groups, though arguably better, is not drag and drop, and this is where circles is far easier to use. Circles is drag and drop, and you can create as many circles as you wish.

Sharing is also designed with reminders about privacy in mind. In fact, you can’t post anything to Google+ without specifying how it will be shared. Public makes it available on your public profile, and copies everyone who has added you to their circles. Yet you can also choose to share only with your friends, coworkers, family, bowling team, or whatever combination of groups and people you wish. Again, Facebook has something similar, but it is not built into the sharing mechanics, and you don’t have to specify how your posts will be shared.

Perhaps my favorite feature is the ability to edit my posts after the fact. I can add, delete, and correct anything, no matter how long ago it was posted. There is a glitch, though: the edit function does not work with photo albums. That is something that I hope Google+ will fix.

As for hangouts, I haven’t been able to test them out yet. The people at Mashable describe hangouts as “Google+ killer feature” . Even without testing it out, the ability to video chat with 10 people at one time is much better than what Facebook has to offer.

There was also one thing that puzzled me at first, the incoming feed. I didn’t get the point of having it. Essentially, the incoming feed holds posts that are shared with you by people who are not in your circles. Right now, it is of no use to me, as everyone seems to be sharing within their circles. Eventually, I’m guessing that it will be come the spam feed, and I like the idea of not having to deal with the spammers that plague my Twitter profile.

With the deluge of information about Google+, I think it’s more useful to wrap up this post by sharing some resources about the new social platform. Here they are:


  1. Google+ First Impressions (Mashable)
  2. 9 Things Google+ Needs for me to ditch Facebook (PC World)
  3. Google+: 5 Features and Drawbacks (PC World)
  4. First Impressions of Google+ (Hackcollege)
  5. Google+ vs Facebook: See how they compare (PC World)
Privacy issues:
  1. Google + may carry dangers for photographers (The Washington Post)
  2. Gearing up for Google+Privacy Settings (The Wall Street Journal)
How To’s, Tips, Tricks, Add Ons, and Other Goodies

The Hodag Chronicles: Branding and merchandising in small town America

Usually, I write about media on this blog. I have posted short critical essays, technology reviews, and other academic style work. One thing I have never done is to treat it as a travelog or as a diary. In fact, I started a different blog on Tumblr to share travel pictures, just to keep the personal and the professional aspects of my life separate.

Coming to Rhinelander changed that. It’s a small town in northern Wisconsin, with a population of roughly 8,000 and some inhabitants. Rhinelander is the county seat of Oneida county. It is sorrounded by lush forests and lakes, which are great for those of us who love outdoor activities, like hiking and camping. Yet, to me, what makes Rhinelander really special is a mythical creature known as the Hodag.

Now, if you don’t know what a Hodag is, you are not alone. I had never heard of this creature until I checked into a hotel in Rhinelander. The Hodag is listed as the town’s legend, but more importantly, as the town symbol. Indeed, the Hodag is important enough to have several statues. The biggest one is displayed prominently on the lawn of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce. This is video I shot of that statue.

It’s safe to say that no one in Rhinelander thinks this beast is real, much to the chagrin of cryptozoologists everywhere. In fact, all the promotional literature about the Hodag explains how Gene Shepard, a logger, created the Hodag as a hoax. This happened in 1896, when Shepard conviced several of his friends that such a creature existed. He had a picture of it, and the evidence was convincing enough to enlist a posse to hunt down the Hodag. As the story goes, the group tracked the Hodag and tried to capture him alive. They ended up killing him, and bringing back the remains to Rhinelander. There is even a photograph, recreating the event.
This picture became a popular postcard in the 1920s (Kortenhof, 2006).

The Hodag also became a popular side show attraction, once Mr. Shepard claimed to have captured the creature alive. He exhibited it at the Oneida county fair, to much success. In fact, the creature brought a lot of attention to Rhinelander. Today, you can consider the Hodag as the town’s brand. There is a Hodag park, a Hodag music festival, a highschool team, and even an entire promotional campaign, built around the Hodag.

This is a great example of branding, and I could not help but wonder what else was out there, bearing the image of a Hodag. There’s the obvious array of knicknacks, plush toys, and t-shirts, which you can buy at grocery stores, Walmart, and the Hodag market place. Here are two videos I shot at the Hodag Market place, and Trig’s Grocery Store.

Now, these things are to be expected, but what I find more interesting are the Hodag statues, which can be found around town. All but one of the statues I have found are prominently displayed in front of business establishments, which just reiterates the connection between the town’s business community, branding, the town’s identity, promotion, and merchandising. The only exception is the Hodag at the public library, which is the only one associated with a non commercial building.

I have to say, furthermore, that none of these statues are the same. One of them, at the Rhinelander Cafe and Pub, has a map of Wisconsin, and a map of the United States painted on its sides. Another pays homage to the troops, and is painted appropriately in camouflage. There is also a Cowboy Hodag, at a BP gas station, and one carve entirely out of a single log, which can be seen outside a real state agency. Finally, there is an entire collection of Hodags at tje Rhinelander Logging Museum.



Road side attractions are part of the American landscape. Many small towns have them, and it is not uncommon for them to use such attractions as a way of branding themselves. The Hodag allows Rhinelander to build up a unique identity, which for a town this size, or any town, for that matter, is actually quite important. Indeed, the Hodag seems to be more important than John Heisman in this town. Heisman is buried here, and his name is well known to anyone who follows American College footbal, as a trophy is named after him. Yet when you drive into Rhinelander on Highway 8, one of the first signs you see is not for Heisman. It is for the Hodag.