Data-driven Story Spotlights L.A. Pedestrian Dangers

Stepping into a busy intersection in Los Angeles sometimes feels as if you are the star in your very own big-budget Hollywood thriller. Danger lurks with every step. The suspense is palpable as you navigate the action-packed crossing, hoping only to make it to the other side without being gravely injured.

Just how much of a wild ride it can be to cross the street in Los Angeles is the central focus of a comprehensive analysis of pedestrian safety by the Los Angeles Times. The report went live on the Times website this weekend. The results are solidly reported and beautifully rendered.

The detailed report reveals the most dangerous intersections for pedestrians to cross.  Data analyzed by the Times team found that a quarter of all traffic accidents in the city involved less than 1 percent of all intersections in the city, mostly in the downtown and Hollywood areas.

Team members brought different skills sets to the project so that the final product is greater than the sum of its individual parts. The report features investigative reporting, web design, data analysis, visual journalism and audience engagement all coming together in a compelling, attractive and user-friendly way.

The visually appealing story features a looping video across the top of streets crowded with walking people and moving cars.

The post has an embedded map showing where most of the problem crossings are located. There’s a cleverly produced video showing Highland Avenue and  Hollywood Boulevard with a sped-up look at how drivers and pedestrians routinely violate basic crosswalk rules to make things dangerous.  When each transgression happens, the video is stopped and the danger highlighted.

From an educational standpoint the best part of this report is the explanatory piece by web producer Armand Emamdjomeh on how the data analysis was produced. The Times team began by dowloading 5.6 million accident reports from the California Highway Patrol and then extracting only Los Angeles incidents.

In the end the report examined more than 25,000 local accidents. Then it looked at factors such as the proportion of accidents involving pedestrians as well as pedestrian deaths to determine which intersections were the most dangerous.

As a team leader on this report, Emamdjomeh is clearly a unique talent. He has a strong journalism background and is equally adept with graphics, data analysis, and web production. Newsroom members such as Emamdjomeh may be the exception today, but essential for all newsrooms in the future.

A Careful Rush to Judgement

real times news meeting

It’s 7 a.m. on Thursday, June 18. Seen above, Times editors are gathered in a semi-circle around the Real Time news desk area for the daily ritual of the morning meeting to talk about stories that are in the works. It’s a no-brainer for the main breaking news coverage today: The killing of nine AME church members in Charleston, S.C. by 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

This has already been a busy week for breaking news coverage for the Times. Just two days earlier the Times mobilized for extensive coverage of the tragic balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA that killed six young students.

The meeting lasted about 25 minutes, and about half that time was devoted to planning coverage of the church shootings for the digital product. At the time of the meeting the suspect had not been confirmed by officials, but rumors and a photo of a possible suspect were being circulated on social media and the web. Editors wanted this information out quickly, but also wanted it confirmed before publishing it.

Editors brought up the issue of how South Carolina continues to fly the Confederate flag, an aspect of this story that was being talked about on social media.

“It’s a black church and white gunman,” one editor said. “We can’t ignore the cultural implications of this.” This aspect of the story was then smartly added to the coverage mix.

The Times online coverage was impressive, and continually updated throughout the day. They had reporters and photographers on scene and reporters working the story remotely from Los Angeles and other bureaus. This was a thoughtful approach to a fast-breaking story of national importance.

I was given a small piece of this coverage and asked to interview local AME church leaders for a short video. I called several AME churches close to the Times office and left messages asking if anyone was available to comment. Then I headed out with my camera and equipment to the First AME church where I found one church official available for an interview. Also on scene was a reporter for KCAL 9 along with her camera operator.

“I’m not used to seeing newspaper people with video cameras,” the reporter remarked. The AME official was also skeptical, and asked to see my Times identification badge before he would do an interview on camera.

“I’m used to dealing with the Times in print,” he said.

I completed the short interview and then got a call back from one of the messages I had left earlier. I was told that several AME pastors were meeting soon at the Ward AME church about a five-minute drive from where I was now. I went over there and recorded several interviews with church leaders. I even received bonus coverage with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck showed up to assure church leaders of their safety, and I recorded his brief address.

I returned to the Times newsroom to edit and later post the video above.

Deadlines and the Digital First World

Deadlines have always been a key part of journalism. Saying this makes me sound a little like Captain Obvious.

Captain Obvious

It’s been clear for some time that deadline cycles for journalism have changed dramatically with the push for digital first content. The once-daily print and broadcast deadlines of old seem downright leisurely by today’s digital first, 24/7 practices. Again, thank you Captain Obvious.

Knowing all this is one thing. Experiencing it in the field is quite another, as I found out at the end of my second week of the Back in the Newsroom Fellowship.  I covered a press conference for the Times concerning a music producer who went missing after meeting with a client in Compton. I packed up my video camera and equipment and arrived about a half hour before the conference, which gave me the opportunity to interview both parents of the missing producer.

Had this been a more prominent story I would have been expected to immediately tweet out quotes from these interviews, even before the press conference began. I would also be expected to cut a few sound bites together and send out a video of these preliminary interviews using a cell phone app.

This short clip above, taken with my cell phone, gives you an idea of the scene at the conference. I shot most of it with my digital camera. I then returned to the newsroom to capture the footage and write up a text story that was placed in the pipeline to be edited for online. Then I used Final Cut to edit the video quickly, using simple titles and stringing together sound bites with the use of cutaway shots to produce a 90-second video which told the story in a digital-first, quick way. This was no time to craft a mini-documentary.

I was finished with both the story and video within a couple of hours of the press conference ending. The story and video were posted in the L.A. Now blog around 7 p.m.

Even though I had practiced with the video editing app on my phone last week, I was not prepared to use it in the field under this deadline pressure. This will take more practice. Had this been a more important breaking story, I would not have had the luxury of using a laptop program such as Final Cut to do the edit. This week my thumbs will get a workout as I practice even more with the mobile video editing apps.

Digital newsrooms operate using teams. This is a strategy I want to apply to my media production class at Santa Monica College. Fast-paced planning on stories is essential, and different sectors of the newsroom, from the social media crew to web designers, from editors to reporters, work together to maximize a story’s digital impact.

Reporters in a digital first newsroom have a lot of things on their mind, so reporting is more complicated now than ever. Captain Obvious, you are so right. Maybe that’s why so many mid-career reporters have chosen to take buyouts or leave the profession. They just don’t want the hassle of learning all these new digital tricks.

You have to feel comfortable with mobile apps and social media. And you have to be aware of how best to use your content over multiple platforms, including social media, a blog, online and finally in print. And you are never off deadline, unlike this happy guy from an old-time commercial:

The Robot as Reporter

I look forward to meeting many staff members at the Los Angeles Times when I begin my fellowship on June 1. But one reporter is going to be especially hard to get to know, or invite to lunch. It’s actually not a person but a programmed algorithm known as Quakebot.

Quakebot was developed at the Times by Ken Schwencke, a real person. It utilizes information from the U.S. Geological Survey to quickly create stories about earthquakes, a common enough occurrence in California to where such a program would be useful. I experienced Quakebot’s handiwork this past weekend following a brief jolting that occurred Saturday morning. The L.A. Now section of the Times published Quakebot’s story about 20 minutes after the shaking had stopped.

image of automated reporting example by Quakebot
An example of Quakebot’s reporting skills. Nice work!

Quakebot obviously aspires to a no-nonsense school of reporting. The posting offered a nothing-but-the facts type of lede that gave readers, in a 20-word paragraph, the “what” and “when” of the story, and an attribution. Bravo!

Schwencke has also developed a similar automated reporting program for the Times’ Homicide Report.

These types of programs are gaining traction in journalism circles, especially in the world of sports reporting. The Associated Press announced this spring that it would use Wordsmith to generate sports game stories. Wordsmith, on its website, promises to turn “big data into narrative reports” by spotting patterns in the information. If this sounds a lot like what the human variety of sports reporter does, that’s right. Automated reporting programs can craft a decent sports game story in the time it takes a human sports writer to fetch a post-game donut. And these computer programs don’t require costly health care, or submit expense reports.

When I first heard of these types of automated reporting programs about a decade ago, I laughed at the idea than robots could replace people as reporters. As I read the serviceable report by Quakebot of last weekend’s earthquake, the idea is not so easily dismissed. Artificial intelligence has made great strides in recent years. The computer Watson killed on “Jeopardy!” not too long ago. And the folks at Wordsmith have added some sophisticated stylings to their program so that its reports don’t sound so, well, robotic.

With reporter jobs already threatened in many newsrooms, now comes news of another  potential risk: losing your job to a machine. This is one trend I will watch closely when I take my turn at L.A. Now, where the goal is to generate concise breaking news stories and upload them quickly to the Times website.  If robots are going to begin a takeover of the modern newsroom, the breaking news department will be the first line of assault.