Tag Archives: PhD

It’s time

The last two posts have updated my progress in understanding the Where and the Who of public discourse on coal seam gas, but didn’t say much about the When. Analysing the temporal dynamics of public discourse — in other words, how things change — has been one of my driving interests all along in this project, so to complete this series of stock-taking articles, I will now review where I’m up to in analysing the temporal dimension.

At least, I had hoped to complete the stock-taking process with this post. But in the course of putting this post together, I made some somewhat embarrassing discoveries about the temporal composition of my data — discoveries that have significant implications for all of my analyses. This post is dedicated mostly to dealing with this new development. I’ll present the remainder of what I planned to talk about in a second installment.

The experience I describe here contains important lessons for anyone planning to analyse data obtained from news aggregation services as Factiva.

The moving window of time

The first thing to mention — and this is untainted by the embarrassment that I will discuss shortly — is that I’ve changed the way I’m making temporal graphs. Whereas previously I was simply aggregating data into monthly or quarterly chunks, I am now using KNIME’s ‘Moving Aggregation’ node to calculate moving averages over a specified window of time. This way, I can tailor the level of aggregation to the density of the data and the purpose of the graph. And regardless of the size of the time window, the time increments by which the graph is plotted can be as short as a week or a day, so the curve is smoother than a simple monthly or quarterly plot.

One reason why this feature is so useful is that the volume of news coverage on coal seam gas over time is very peaky, as shown in Figure 1 (and even the 30-day window hides a considerable degree of peakiness). Smoothing out the peaks to see long-term trends is all well and good, but it’s important never to lose touch with the fact that the data doesn’t really look that way.

Figure 1. The number of articles in my corpus over time, aggregated to a 30-day moving window. Hovering over the image shows the same data aggregated to a 90-day window. Continue reading

Playing with page numbers

When was the last time you read a newspaper? I mean an actual, physical newspaper? Can you look at your fingertips and picture them smudged with ink, or remember trying to turn and fold those large and unwieldy pages? These are fading memories for me, and are probably totally foreign to many younger people today. Like many people, I consume virtually all of my news these days via the internet or, on rare occasion, the television. As far as I am concerned, newspapers are fast becoming nothing more than historical artifacts.

And yet, newspaper articles account for the bulk of the news data that I am analysing in my PhD project. To be sure, most of these newspaper articles were also published online, and would have been consumed that way by a lot of people. But I feel I can’t ignore the fact that these articles were also produced and consumed in a physical format. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do to account for the physical presentation of the articles. My database doesn’t include the accompanying images or captions. Nor does it record how the articles were laid out on the page, or what other content surrounded them. But the metadata provided by Factiva does include one piece of information about each article’s physical manifestation: the page number of the newspaper in which it appeared.

From the very beginning of the explorations documented on this blog, I have completely ignored the page number field in my dataset. I figured that I was analysing text, not newspapers, and in any case I couldn’t see how I would incorporate page numbers into the kind of analysis that I was planning to do. But after hearing a colleague remark that ‘article-counting studies’ like mine are often unsatisfactory precisely because they fail to account for this information, I decided to give it some more thought. Continue reading

Looking for letters

In the posts I’ve written to date, I’ve learned some interesting things about my corpus of 40,000 news articles. I’ve seen how the articles are distributed over time and space. I’ve seen the locations they talk about, and how this shifts over time. And I’ve created a thematic index to see what it’s all about. But I’ve barely said anything about the articles themselves. I’ve written nothing, for example, about how they vary in their format, style, and purpose.

To some extent, such concerns are of secondary importance to me, since they are not very accessible to the methods I am employing, and (not coincidentally) are not central to the questions I will be investigating, which relate more to the thematic and conceptual aspects of the text. But even if these things are not the objects of my analysis, they are still important because they define what my corpus actually is. To ignore these things would be like surveying a large sample of people without recording what population or cohort those people represent. As with a survey, the conclusions I draw from my textual analysis will have no real-world validity unless I know what kinds of things in the real world my data represent.

In this post, I’m going to start paying attention to such things. But I’m not about to provide a comprehensive survey of the types of articles in my corpus. Instead I will focus on just one categorical distinction — that between in-house content generated by journalists and staff writers, and contributed or curated content in the form of readers’ letters and comments. Months ago, when I first started looking at the articles in my corpus, I realised that many of the articles are not news stories at all, but are collections of letters, text messages or Facebook posts submitted by readers. I wondered if perhaps this reader-submitted content should be kept separate from the in-house content, since it represents a different ‘voice’ to that of the newspapers themselves. Or then again, maybe reader’s views can be considered just as much a part of a newspaper’s voice as the rest of the content, since ultimately it is all vetted and curated by the newspaper’s editors.

As usual, the relevance of this distinction will depend on what questions I want to ask, and what theoretical frameworks I employ to answer them. But there is also a practical consideration — namely, can I even separate these types of content without sacrificing too much of my time or sanity? 40,000 documents is a large haystack in which to search for needles. Although there is some metadata in my corpus inherited from the Factiva search (source publication, author, etc.), none of it is very useful for distinguishing letters from other articles. To identify the letters, then, I was going to have to use information within the text itself. Continue reading

How the news moves


Don’t feel like reading? Fine, skip to the pictures!

My last post explored the spatial and temporal dynamics of news production, looking at how the intensity of news coverage about coal seam gas varied over time across regional newspapers. In this post, I will look instead at the geographic content of news coverage: which places do news articles about coal seam gas discuss, and how has the geographic focus changed over time?

Coal seam gas development in Australia has become a matter of national interest, at least insofar as it has a place (albeit a shrinking one) on the federal political agenda, and has featured (albeit to varying degrees) in news coverage and public debate across the country. But it’s hard to talk sensibly about coal seam gas — whether you are talking about the industry itself, its social and environmental impacts, or how the community has responded to it —  without grounding the discussion in specific locations. From one gas field to another, the structures and dynamics of underground systems vary just as much as the social systems on the surface. I am convinced that any meaningful analysis of CSG-related matters must be highly sensitive to geographic context. (My very first PhD-related post on this blog, an analysis of hyperlinks on CSG-related web pages, pointed to the same conclusion.)

Most news stories about coal seam gas are ultimately about some place or another (or several), whether it be the field where the gas is produced, the power plant where it is used, the port from which it is exported, the environment or community affected, or the place where people gather to protest or blockade. Keeping track of which places are mentioned in the news could provide one way of tracking how the public discourse about coal seam gas develops. And the most logical way to present and explore this kind of information is with a map. In theory, every place mentioned in an article could be translated to a dot on a map. Mapping all of the dots from all of the articles should reveal the geographical extent and focus of news about coal seam gas.

Why do this? (Other than because I can, and it might be fun?) Firstly, because I’m still a little sketchy about how coal seam gas development and its attendant controversies have moved around the country over the last decade or two. I’m reasonably familiar with what has transpired in Queensland, but much less so with the situation in New South Wales. As for the other states, where there has been much less industry activity, I know virtually nothing about where and when coal seam gas has been discussed. So a map (especially one that can show time as well) of CSG-related news would provide a handy reference for understanding both the national and local geographic dimensions of the issue.

The other reason to map the news in this manner is that it may provide a way to both generate and answer interesting questions about the news landscape (or the public discourse more broadly) around coal seam gas — and this is, after all, what my PhD needs to do. Continue reading