Annotating the News

What does annotating the news afford education, and why should designers and facilitators of learning engage the emerging trend of annotated news?

I’ve been the reading the news a lot lately – no surprise there. And, given what’s happening in our world right now, you probably have been, too. If your experience has been anything like mine, perhaps you’ve noted a trend – organizations and reporters are annotating the news. Some publications, like the Washington Post, have incorporated annotation into their reporting for well over a year, and have even claimed “annotation can save journalism.” Amid concern over fake news and the limits of fact-checking, the ascendancy of Trump’s administration has ushered forth new urgency and activity associated with web annotation, current events, and the public activities of media organizations.

As a digital media researcher and educator who has played around with and thought a bit about web annotation over the past year, I’ve tried to keep tabs on some of this activity. Here’s a sample of my tweets from just the past few weeks:

In case you’ve missed this rise of annotated journalism, here are but a few examples – all from 2017, most published in just the past 48 hours – that showcase how media organizations are adopting new tools and methods in order to present the news, make sense of current events, and engage their readership.

This small sample – among many other examples – reveals a broad trend (“let’s annotate the news!”) but also divergent and experimental methods, and more or less accessible means of appreciating new information added to a primary source. Conventions for the visual presentation of an annotation vary, from segmented paragraphs to multiple columns of text. Sometimes annotation is a collective effort by the staff of a newsroom or group of experts, whereas in other cases annotations are contributed by an individual. Some organizations appear to be developing in-house approaches (the New York Times, NPR, and Vox), whereas others have adopted third-party platforms that are more robust and dynamic (most notably, the Washington Post’s use of Genius). For people who are more technically inclined, detailed accounts have emerged of how organizations have annotated and fact-checked in realtime (an analysis of NPR’s efforts) or cobbled together various platforms and open-source software to build “the framework for a live annotation tool” (a post-hoc description from Vox). And at the intersection of tool development and media activity, Jon Udell’s posts about Annotating the wild west of information flow and Bird-dogging the web are essential reading. It appears that one response to acerbic partisan discourse in a divided America is the emergence of web annotation at the vanguard of new media platforms and practices.

Given my professional dispositions as a professor of information and learning technologies, when I read the news I cannot help but consider implications for teaching and learning. In this respect, what does annotating the news afford education? I am neither a journalist nor a media critic; as such, my assessment of this trend in annotated news is written for those people who design, facilitate, and research learning, and in both K-12 and higher education contexts. So if you’re a designer or educator – and particularly if you are interested in, affiliated with, or researching digital media and learning – why should you engage the emerging trend of annotated news? Here are two reasons why people who care about teaching and learning should be following – and engaging with – the trend in annotated news.

Additional Context

First, annotation provides additional context about a particular topic, event, or resource. With previous educational initiatives, web annotation has been used to provide context, as with the National Science Foundation-funded Science in the Classroom project that has annotated articles for the journal Science to “help students understand the structure and workings of professional scientific research.” A similar rationale now applies to the news. Perhaps pertinent information is missing from an initial report and a layer of annotation can help fill in some gaps. Or perhaps it is necessary to provide context via annotation because the primary source is decontextualized by default. Consider, in this scenario, how NPR prefaced their recent effort with Trump’s tweets: “140 characters rarely gives the full context. Here, we attempt to do just that for key tweets beginning on Jan. 20, when he officially took office.” How to contextualize Twitter? Use annotation.

Whether with tweets or transcripts, annotated news provides additional context about a focal text and can be a promising means of encouraging learners’ perspective-taking and critical thinking. Amidst debate about objectivity and the full story, annotated news can help learners identify and wrestle with the question: “What’s the ‘there’ that is not there?”

Demonstration of Expertise

Second, annotation demonstrates expertise and rigorous analysis. It is both important and encouraging that organizations like Vox have invited experts – like an immigration lawyer who served under three different presidential administrations – to offer line-by-line commentary on changes to immigration policy (including policy relevant to students and their families, like DACA). When it comes, however, to sustained and systematic demonstration of expertise, the best effort hasn’t emerged from a media organization’s newsroom, but rather from a group committed to “peer reviewing” the news. Climate Feedback is a distributed collaborative of research scientists from around the world with expertise in climate science and an expressly “pedagogical” mission:

To help Internet users—from the general public to influential decision-makers—distinguish inaccurate climate change narratives from scientifically sound and trustworthy information in the media. We also provide feedback to editors about the credibility of information published in their outlets.

When news about climate change is published, Climate Feedback scientists with relevant expertise voluntarily contribute in-line and public annotation using the platform Following this initial phase of peer review, the published “feedbacks” also include a summative score of the article’s overall scientific credibility (from +2, or “very high,” to -2, or “very low”).

Such demonstrations of expertise have many benefits for learners, from revealing how specialists assess and contest information, to illustrating the importance of critiquing (supposedly objective) publications. Moreover, expert annotation creates a reputable reference for others, a public document that transforms news from a static report into a more robust and dynamic resource. If a goal of education is to facilitate familiarity with – and apprenticeship in – authentic communities of practice (i.e. a student doing math via decontextualized exercises versus a learner participating as a mathematician in an authentic setting), then perhaps engagement with expert annotation of the news is a promising entry point into such participation.

A Few Final Thoughts and Resources

Despite the promising affordances of added context and demonstrated expertise when incorporating annotated news into teaching and learning, it is important to emphasize that the platforms and practices of web annotation encourage participation. Just as students should engage annotated news (i.e. read it, discuss it), so too should they also use annotation platforms to participate in the various social practices associated with this dynamic form of writing (put simply, students need to annotate!). Much has been written about how learning designers and educators can incorporate web annotation into their students’ developing digital literacies. Among my favorite resources:

I’ll close this post with a brief memory. I began my teaching career as a middle school mathematics educator in the South Bronx. On my way to school each morning – taking the D train from Harlem north past Yankee Stadium along the Grand Concourse – I would pick up a stack of one of New York City’s free daily newspapers. As my sixth grade students entered for first period homeroom they would pick up a paper, sit down, and read. And then we would discuss the news, sharing questions, voicing concerns, and inquiring collectively about the world around us. Now, a decade later, I recall the memory of these rich, sometimes contentious, and always meaningful conversations when I consider what digitally annotated news affords, and why people who work in education – especially educators, though certainly designers and researchers, too – should engage this trend, identifying promising approaches, tackling challenges, and sharing their successes.

If web annotation adds context to the news, so too can participatory web annotation guide students in sharing their own questions about and opinions of that news through conversation with text and author. And if web annotation is a means of sharing expert knowledge, so too can participatory web annotation create an authentic context whereby students can demonstrate their developing expertise through a process of collaborative meaning-making.



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