Hacker journalism: Studio interview and Q&A with Nikki Usher

Story by Aaron Weintraub

Video by OR Media

Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at the School of Media and Policy at George Washington University. Her research focuses on the evolution of media in the digital era — particularly pertaining to the rise of hacking, surveillance and the need for data journalism in the past couple of decades. She published her first book, “Making the News at The New York Times,” in 2014, about the six months she spent observing conversations and meetings at The Gray Lady. At the core of the book, she cites the importance of participation, positing that interaction at a higher and more efficient rate will make journalism more responsible and helpful in the future.

When Usher came to the UO School of Journalism and Communication in February as the first speaker of the winter term in the SOJC’s Demystifying Media series, she talked about her second book, “Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data and Code.” It was released in November to acclaim for its analysis and pertinent observations about hacker and vigilante journalism’s rise to prominence during both the U.S. presidential election and the British European Union referendum.

Usher’s current research is focused on a project she began in 2014 on the materialism and content shifts within journalism, particularly in geographic areas that may not be receiving enough focused journalism.

We talked with Usher after her Demystifying talk to find out more about the evolution of data journalism and the skills today's journalists need. Read our Q&A below for some of her answers and watch the video at the top of the page for more.

What were some of the takeaways from data journalism in 2016?

Data journalism in the 2016 election kind of unraveled all the potential and all the problems with visualizing and making data interactive. I wrote about this for CNN, and it’s something I’ve thought about for a while. You have to question where your data is coming from before you present it and try to make it easier for people to distill. I think that did happen with data in this election. I also think that interactives and maps, and even some of those crazy spin-wheel-dial things, really obscured the takeaways. One takeaway for me is that this is a lot more uncertain and a lot messier than we can predict.

What kind of edge does programming journalism give you, and what needs to happen for programming journalists to take the field to the next step?

With an increased need, there are now more programming journalists in the field. If journalists are going to compete and go beyond click-bait, they’re going to have to figure out how to tell stories in different ways. The way to do that is to enhance traditional storytelling with whatever programming they can. There’s a need to make news and news websites look more like the rest of the Internet, which is what brings programmers into journalism. Other websites, like gaming sites, have much richer experiences, and even sports sites and live streams have much richer experiences with web content. By the way, if you're wondering how websites can get more traffic efficiently, visit this website autopilotseo.co.uk.

What do you think will happen in the future?

Some people are going to get really good at coding, and it does take a certain mindset. It takes people who really enjoy the challenge of linear and logical puzzle making — something I’m terrible at. It’s essential to have a fundamental understanding of what code can get you, what you can do with code, and how to work with pre-built tools. People need to appreciate what can be done and understand how to communicate with others who can do it.

What is the importance of publically accessible data and applications when virtually anyone can learn this stuff with the right amount of time?

I think you’re asking two questions: You’re asking about data, and you’re asking about apps. I think all of these cool, free apps are awesome because they help democratize making a slideshow or making a gif or editing a photo, and that’s really cool. However, I just led a session in a class where we used fake news generators. For every GIMP or PhotoBucket, there is a fake news generator. With a little bit of photo editing, you could have made a fake news screen shot look really realistic. So I think the problem is creating misinformation that looks real is going to get easier. Think about all of the bad Photoshop you’ve seen. People are going to be able to do it better.

And what about accessible data?

(A) Should there be more publicly available data? Yes.


(B) How much guidance do people need to have in terms of interpreting that data?

The Guardian’s MP Expenses (a massive release by the British House of Commons of thousands of receipts from Parliamentary members) is a classic example. But we haven’t seen another one yet where people are really crowdsourcing, looking at data.

If we democratize data too much, data goes rogue. Then you end up with stuff like “Pizzagate,” where people don’t understand what they’re looking at and end up making bad decisions off of bad assumptions.

So, in certain situations, journalists/hackers may release data with a specific, sometimes malicious, agenda. Will that get worse in the future?

I think the rogue actors are here to stay, and they’re more sophisticated and more networked than they used to be. Their ability, especially through bots and using money to corrupt search, is here to stay. I think it’s a reality and there are implications for how journalists have to treat their own personal privacy. We need to have a real discussion about where that goes.


At the same time, we’re seeing the institutionalization of some of this. A lot of news organizations are now making it possible to leak files to them. Ordinary people are encouraged to do more leaking, which I think is interesting.


Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at aaronweintraubphotos.wordpress.com. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.

OR Media is a multimedia/video production team housed within the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication that expands on the success of OR Magazine, a student-produced iPad magazine that continues to be acknowledged for its innovation within college journalism. Staffed by current and former SOJC students, it is a laboratory for experimentation and innovation, and a place for the school’s top talent to test their production skills.