Media is full of narratives. Some narratives are helpful, and some are harmful. But always, media embeds narratives in society’s collective memory. They become the first rough draft of our history. StoryAtlas was created to map narratives that matter.

StoryAtlas is a website that serves two purposes. First, it is an interactive map that uses data visualization to temporally and geographically map changing narratives published by media outlets around major news events. Second, it is a methodological framework for using quantitative natural language processing (NLP) methods to assist both academics and journalists in finding a “way in” to traditionally qualitative discourse analysis. The purpose of StoryAtlas is to help the public, journalists, and academics to understand and analyze how the news cycle develops certain narratives of people, places, and events, and how those narratives end up becoming literally imprinted in society’s collective memory.

Using open-source tools, StoryAtlas tracks print publications’ coverage of news events over a year’s worth of coverage. For its first iteration, StoryAtlas examines the murder of George Floyd.

On May 25, 2020, a Black man named George Floyd was murdered by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds during an arrest after an alleged counterfeit crime. The following day, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published one of the first news articles about Floyd: “Man who died in police incident was good friend and like family to his boss, others.” The same day, The New York Times also published a story about Floyd: “Bystander videos of George Floyd and others are policing the police.” Floyd’s life, and the story around his death, would come memorialize Black Lives Matter and other civil rights movements in the 21st century, and become a catalyst for changing laws regarding police immunity.

The data map of how coverage of George Floyd’s death changed over a year between the two publications and the words that were used most frequently in print news articles as a “way in” to news narratives about this important cultural inflection point.

One initial takeaway from the data at this point in the analysis is that The New York Times frequently used words “Trump,” “president,” and “law” in stories about George Floyd. Contrastingly, the Star Tribune used words such as “Chauvin,” “trial,” and “justice.” This seems to indicate that as a national paper, the New York Times was more concerned with public sentiment around the murder of George Floyd and its effects on the upcoming 2020 election and its candidates, as well as potential implications for federal law. The Star Tribune, on the other hand, was more concerned about justice for the community by way of Chauvin’s trial.

Another important initial finding is the difference between use of the word “death” versus “murder” in relation to George Floyd. While “death” was within the top three words for both publications, only the Star Tribune begins using “murder” within its most frequent embeddings in relation to articles about Floyd. This has important implications for journalism norms. Murder is only a term used in professional journalism once someone has been convicted. It’s an important shielding practice in order to avoid potential litigation for slander. However, video evidence and public outcry for justice from the Minneapolis and Black communities seem to have influenced the Star Tribune to begin using “murder” nearly as frequently as “death” even before Chauvin was convicted in April 2021.

As an emergent project, StoryAtlas is continuing to grow both its digital experience and its methodology. The next steps for StoryAtlas include: expanding its quantitative analysis to look at word embeddings not just word frequencies, using the quantitative data to explore the data qualitatively, building a how-to guide for newsrooms and researchers, creating an interactive story map and web narrative exploring the findings of the project, examining more newsrooms other than NYT and the Star Tribune, and examining other important news events, such as the mass shooting at Michigan State University and one of California’s deadliest wildfire—the 2018 Camp Fire.