This semester, West Virginia University Reed College of Media students will have the opportunity to create a new data-driven model for use in elections reporting.

Students in Assistant Professor Alison Bass’ Investigative Reporting class and Assistant Professor Bob Britten’s Interactive Design and Data Visualization class will collaborate with New York Times reporter Derek Willis to collect data about West Virginia voter behavior and compare it to the campaign messages residents receive.

The goal of the collaboration is to provide a more nuanced understanding of what influences voter behavior over time at the hyper-local level.

Willis is the WVU Reed College of Media’s newest Ogden Newspapers Innovator-in-Residence. He writes about congressional behavior, campaign finance and other topics for The Upshot, a New York Times politics and policy site, and was a member of The Times’ Interactive News desk, where he built and maintained political databases used in web applications.

He will spend the fall semester working with students to analyze data in the West Virginia Senate race between Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant.

The project will allow students to gain a critical and highly marketable reporting skill – the ability to parse data and use it to inform their elections reporting – and is designed as a hyper-local model that can be used to provide a big-picture analysis of an entire election.

“We hope to understand which areas are critical in an election,” Willis said. “Ideally, we’ll be able to see how one candidate or another can hold together a coalition of voters – or how they failed to do that.”

He stressed the importance of collecting this information at a “micro” level.

“If you don’t use this kind of data, you run the risk of missing a candidate’s approach,” he said. “Because of the ability to target smaller and smaller slices of the electorate, reporters can have a thorough understanding of what the campaign is doing.”

Students in the participating classes will be divided into teams to cover five West Virginia counties: Kanawha, Monongalia, Preston, Harrison and Marshall. They will identify voters in each area and interview them about whether they have recently shifted their political affiliation, what issues matter to them, and which political campaign and party messages they received. Then, the students will analyze the effectiveness of messaging on a highly targeted level to understand how it impacts voter behavior.

Each student team will maintain a class blog, as well as produce multimedia news stories based on their findings. This will including developing information graphics as a visual means of explaining complex data to a public audience. The stories will be shared with West Virginia media organizations and on the Google+ page for the College’s new Media Innovation Center.

Bass says both she and her students are excited to have such a unique opportunity. Many of the students decided to take the class because they’re interested in investigative journalism, a significant aspect of which involves collecting data and understanding its implications. Other students are motivated by an interest in politics.

“I’m excited about this class because, by learning to filter this kind of data, I will learn teaching techniques that I can pass on to future students,” Bass said. She also noted that students will learn more about how political campaigns work in a democracy, as well as gain experience writing on a deadline and publishing their work.

Willis is the College’s second Innovator-in-Residence. The College developed the Ogden Newspapers Innovator-in-Residence program last year to bring to campus top media professionals who are leading experimental change in their own newsrooms.

Last year, Sarah Slobin of The Wall Street Journal worked with students to respond to the challenge of designing and developing a news project for mobile-first delivery. Students worked with Slobin to produce The Drug Next Door , a mobile-first story that examined the nationwide trend of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder drug abuse among college students.



CONTACT: Kimberly Walker, WVU Reed College of Media

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