Advancing while Falling (aka the Great Comeback)

It’s been five months, but I’m finally back.  But with both good and bad news.  Since I like to do things in chronological order, the good news will come first.

My last post did not end on the best of news.  I tried to put things in a positive light and managed to make it through another semester of graduate classes and teaching.

A California Sunflower not wilted from the drought.  A sign of happiness.

A California Sunflower not wilted from the drought. A sign of happiness.

The Good News

For the most part, the semester went well and in in some ways better than last semester.  My seminar class was more interesting if a bit repetitive and I got my thesis chair out of it.  I took a land use planning class (something I normally would not consider taking), and which was very much a law class, but I actually learned very useful information about the way things get built in California.  I also attended a planning commission meeting.  I will try and do a separate post on that later.

My third class helped me create my thesis proposal, which  basically forced me to not only pick a topic for my research but to really think about every aspect of completing the research from creating a literature review to deciding what methods to employ to gather my data.  At the end of this class, I had to have my thesis proposal approved by my thesis chair and then participate in advancement, which is where advancing master’s students present their thesis proposal to the entire department and then get officially approved to become a candidate for a master’s in geography.

Which probably sounds very boring and official, but it is The Moment that the whole semester is leading up to and what kept my fellow cohort and I stressed out and excited for the whole semester.  In the end, giving the presentation was easy but getting to that point took a lot of work.

At the beginning of the semester I had almost no hope of completing my proposal on time and even thought I might have to change my topic completely because people just did not seem to get it or see its relevance to geography.  I felt like I was walking into unknown territory and in a way I was.  But that’s just me I guess, ever the (academic) rebel.

So what was I trying to do?  What I had thought about doing since I added geography as a double major nearly three years ago: combine my two worlds of journalism and geography into something magical.  Okay, maybe not magical but unique or at least creative.  I wanted to study geography within journalism.  Journalism within geography.  Basically I wanted it all.

My graduate advisor though made it quite clear that a master’s thesis was no place for “having it all”.  So I had to learn to chop away and narrow down all my grand ideas into one manageable argument that would be the center of my thesis research.  That took time and a lot of compromise, but I finally did it.

The final product?  A 14 page proposal, which I had to turn into an eight minute presentation.  I will not bore you with all 14 pages of my proposal, but for those interested here is the three page script I used for my presentation, which briefly outlines what I plan to research.  (If you would rather just get to the bad news then just skip this and scroll down).

The schedule for advancement presentations.

The schedule for advancement presentations.

Geo-Journalism: GIS for Local News Mapping in Los Angeles and Orange Counties

This study plans to examine several issues regarding GIS-based mapping within journalism, specifically on the local news level and will include the Signal Hill Tribune, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times (the last one being used as a comparison between smaller and bigger papers). I propose the term “Geo-Journalism” to describe journalistic work done using GIS-based mapping or any other geographic methods and/or perspectives.

Research Questions and Purpose

While Geographic Information Science (GIS) is becoming an important spatial news reporting tool in journalism (as a form of data journalism), my main research question is, “Is GIS-based mapping still underused in smaller, local news organizations and why or why not?”

Following this will be questions of how local media can better improve or integrate GIS-based maps and interactive mapping on the local level of reporting to help provide better analyses of local spatial patterns for various news stories and give the local readers a better understanding of their community and the issues related to it.

As the world of journalism continues to transform and adapt to digital news reporting, local news’ use of GIS-based tools will also need to increase. This will allow them to engage and inform readers in the future since GIS will most likely become an extremely useful or even vital tool in spatial news reporting.

The map pictured here is by the Long Beach Press-Telegram and shows the most dangerous intersections in the city using data from the City of Long Beach. This map is interactive in that one can choose to view one of the four symbols displayed to the left of the map to see areas of injuries, accidents and busiest intersections. When you click on a point you can view a photo of the intersection and the number of accidents there. This is a good example of a small, local paper creating a good, informative interactive map, but ones like it seem to be few and far between for the Press-Telegram.  

Academic Scholarship

Research is lacking that specifically addresses the issue of how local news organizations use GIS-based mapping or the effects of its use on the readership. Thus this study could provide insight into the issue and help answer the question of whether and how GIS-based mapping can provide benefits for local spatial news reporting. This lack of literature is not surprising in that discussion of GIS and journalism more generally is not widely explored among the academic literature.

In terms of local news, Hollander asks the question “Does local still matter?” While his study seems to say that localized news fairs better among print media in regards to government and community stories, this could change as the digital generation ages and becomes more involved with such issues, thus bringing local news to the digital realm. Kaniss also stresses the importance of local news for fostering local identity and providing information that more directly affects people’s lives. Herzog though provides the best examples of how news stories using GIS can find important spatial patterns and help enact change among the community. A good example is the story by the Miami Herald, which uncovered fraudulent building practices by analyzing the patterns of destruction using GIS. This lead to more stringent building codes for the area.

Geo-narratives are where one can see journalism and GIS/geography merging together. Kwan and Ding define geo-narratives as qualitative GIS that includes narrative and computer-aided qualitative analyses. One example by Watts noted how the Los Angeles Times mapped only the structural damage caused by the 1992 LA Riots. By adding text-based narratives to the map, more sides of the story could be told and it provided stories on spatial, temporal and humanistic scales. This could be compared to adding another layer to a normal GIS map, allowing for more complexity but also more information.

GIS in journalism can be seen as an expansion of data journalism. While Rogers says data journalism appears new due to the creation of online media, Lesage and Hackett note that as long as computers have been around, so too has data journalism. But with this comes the problem of “dirty data,” which Messner and Garrison state are errors within databases that go uncorrected. This could be a problem especially for local papers whose reporters may lack skill or knowledge in correcting data for GIS usage. This brings in how a good working relationship between reporters and GIS professionals could help to reduce such “dirty data” as well as provide an understanding of how each field operates in order to avoid information loss or errors.

When it comes to map interpretation, Griffin and Stevenson quote a geography professor/newspaper columnist, Neal Lineback, that geography is essential to understanding news. Despite this, there are very few articles discussing readers’ understanding of maps in news stories, so this study could contribute in this area of research. In Griffin and Stevenson’s study, they found stories displayed via print and computer screen had high information recall. Thus GIS-based maps within these stories may have better chances at being remembered later. Mennecke et al say that map complexity must also be taken into consideration by examining how it will be represented and who the readers are, which can be tricky even for small, local news because of diverse populations such as Long Beach. Kitchin and Dodge say that a reporter’s subjectivity also needs to be addressed when interpreting maps and their data because of the power and influence the media can have on readers.      


For my methodology, I will be using a mixed-methods approach. This will include three different methods. The first will be a quantitative content analysis of how many and what types of stories are using GIS-based maps to see how local papers are currently employing GIS-based mapping. This will provide baseline data that will later aid me in defining what issues and questions to ask my interviewees and survey readers. I plan to examine all local stories for a period of one month and will note the type of story (economic, environmental, crime and so on), type/number of GIS-based maps used, how many stories use GIS-based maps versus do not, where the data for the maps comes from, the background of the reporter (if stated) and who the story seems to be aimed at.

The second will be in-depth interviews with reporters who have experience with GIS and those who do not to discover any barriers. These questions will help me understand why certain stories were mapped, why others were not and how GIS-based mapping can be further implemented on a local spatial level. I will also ask about the financing operations in regards to purchasing software and data for those reporters who create maps themselves. For those who do not, I will ask if they out-source the data to GIS professionals to understand relationships between the two disciplines. Thus I will also try to interview these GIS professionals.

The third will be surveys distributed to subscribers of the newspapers, but if the newspapers object to distributing my survey, I will instead use college students and hopefully also their relatives and/or friends via snowballing. The surveys will be accessed on Qualtrics and distributed via departments and/or professors by email or in class. I hope to get about 30-50 responses.

After gathering all my data, I plan to sort, code, categorize and analyze it for common issues, opinions and perhaps problems to understand how GIS-based mapping in local news can go beyond its current limitations and better provide information to the public.


In conclusion, I would like to thank the geography department, Dr. Thien, my thesis committee and my cohort for all the assistance, advice and support during this process.

The Bad News

My proposal was rejected and I was booted out of the geography department.

Kidding.  My proposal was accepted and I am now officially a candidate for the master’s degree in geography.

The real bad news?  I was in a car accident just hours after my advancement presentation.  Way to end the day right?

After my presentation, I had planned to go to the Los Angeles Geographical Society’s (LAGS) Student Research Symposium to present my thesis proposal again, but this time to a wider and more diverse audience (and also maybe get potential job opportunities).  But only a few miles from school while stopped at a red light, I was rear-ended by another car.

I had never been in a car accident before and at first I was in shock and dazed.  I had been flung forward and then slammed hard into the back of my seat.  My head hit the head rest and I had a headache for the rest of the day.  There was no major damage to the car, some scratches and paint smears.  The real damage was to me.

Some scratched my car received from the collision.

Some scratched my car received from the collision.

The next day and even now I have been suffering from back pain due to muscle damage.  The one bright side is that I had no spine/bone damage.  But the back pain has left me stuck at home unable to do simple things like move boxes or even carry a purse for more than 30 minutes without sharp pains occurring in my upper back.  Simple activities that I took for granted, such as driving to the store to do grocery shopping are now difficult and even impossible to do.  Too much activity causes stress to my muscles, so much so that now I have difficulty breathing if I go out for more than an hour.  I start to feel like there is a weight sitting on my heart and each breath does not bring enough air.  I get dizzy and have to sit or better yet lie down.

What amazes me the most with all of this is how something like being just hit from behind and not at even a high speed can cause so much damage.  The doctors I have seen all say to rest and that it will take a long time to recover.  They have suggested physical therapy, but the only place I can go to is the PT at school, which is too long of a drive for my back to endure.

At times I feel helpless and trapped.  I’m finally done with school but unable to go out and have fun.  On the other side though I’m done with school and do not have to miss any classes or try to go there and endure the pain.  I kept wishing for a time machine.  If only I had not gone to the symposium I would be ok.  But there is no time machine.  There is only unfortunate choices and regrets.  (And lots of doctor’s visits and medication).

With this plus the robbery last year, I feel like the bad things are piling up and it makes me afraid of the future.  What might happen next?  Will every semester have to end in disaster?  My time as an undergrad was one of the best of my life.  My time as a graduate is not shaping up so nicely and it makes me wonder, for a small moment, if the universe is telling me to stop.  That for some reason I should not get a master’s degree.

But why?

If there is a reason universe, please kindly leave a note on my desk clearly explaining the situation rather than try to rob and injure me.  You don’t gotta be a bitch about it.

Until then I plan to keep on with my goals of getting my master’s degree and maybe publishing academic articles and teaching classes.  Because after all, I’m just an academic rebel.


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