Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I, Journalist (aka iJournalist)

Back in the 80s, but really starting much earlier, there was real fear that robots and computers were taking over the world. They could work 24 hours a day, never asked for raises, never went on strike, rarely got injured (though they might be more expensive to diagnose and treat) and wouldn’t wile the day away surfing the web. Fears emerged that we were moving toward a period of high unemployment and high profits, creating a permanent underclass and small, unaccountable elite. One could argue we’ve ended up there without the help of the robots, who are taking a lot longer to become productive than originally envisioned. Yet it is clear that “automated” machines have taken many jobs over the years, with bank tellers being among the most obvious, and that many more will do so in the future. It is wonderful for business, but less obviously beneficial for workers, customers or, arguably, the social order in general.

The latest attempt to automate a job that few thought would ever fall outside the purview of humanity is journalism. It might sound like pure science fiction, but companies like Narrative Science are already perfecting technology that will allow computers to create content, already utilized in sports and business journalism. The computer-generated journalism is not bad, able to point out the highlights of an event and create pithy, to-the-point sentences. It reduces the need for editing, obviously, and makes the pathway to distribution that much faster. Co-founder Kris Hammond argues that “Look … we are humanising [sic] the machine and giving it the ability not only to look at data but, based on general ideas of what is important and a close understanding of who the audience is, we are giving it the tools to know how to tell us stories.”

Hammond envisions a future where more and more content is handled by his computer programs (he believes 90 percent of journalism will be computer-generated by 2030) and where, someday, a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize. But his vision goes well beyond increase efficiency and cost saving (and a jobless economy, one should add) to a future where stories can be tailored to the specific interests of audiences. Quill has already taken steps in this direction, as it quickly learned to frame stories to suit its audience. If the readers were the supporters of a particular baseball team, it gave the match report from that team’s vantage. Likewise, if it is creating two company reports based on the same data, the machine can produce a positive emphasis for clients and a must-try-harder tone for employees. It has learned the art of spin.

Hammond believes that this would be a dramatic improvement on the journalism of today, largely driven by data and personal/business interests. Yet what is lost in this process, beyond millions of jobs? Well, the news is not simply an objective compilation of what’s happening on a given day, it is also a very human and subjective rendering of what is important on a given day. Reporters go out and talk to people, humanize stories, dig below the surface and find the heart of the narrative. Sure a computer can do with this with some effectiveness, but is this really the world we want to live in? Do we really want to destroy the world of journalism completely? And two other essential questions emerge as well.

The first is what this means for the idea of media as the fourth estate of government? Media is supposed to hold the powerful accountable for their actions and to keep the population at large educated and informed on the key issues of our age. We already see the abrogation of this responsibility in the age of corporate media but could it get even worse if computer programmers are setting the parameters of what we read each day – what counts as news and maybe more importantly, what doesn’t count. He said, she said reporting could become even more of a norm than it presently is and even if fact checking was programmed in, the sources of that fact checking would play a big role in the ultimate conclusions. What would even happen to human interest stories, which tend to provide a framework from moving a story from a distraction to something people actually care about, can empathize with or decide to fight against? In the broader sense, the idea seems to fit with the broader debates about data journalism. I’m not against it as an element of journalism, providing a more quantitative approach to news analysis at the macro level, but I personally don’t want to live in a world where that is all there is. Reading fivethirtyeight.com is sometimes interesting, but if that was the totality of my sports reading, I would probably stop altogether. Data pretends to be neutral, but analyzing it always moves us from objectivity to a more subjective rendering of reality, though it is cloaked by the lie that statistics never lie.

The second concern relates to trends that are already well underway – the tailored news filtering systems that currently exist. Facebook is getting in the news business and there are already hosts of other sites that promise to only give you the news that you want. On the surface this seems wonderful, a way to swim through the infinite seas of irrelevance to find the information that is most important to you. But is something lost if we get to decide exactly what we hear, read and see and from which perspective that information is delivered? Anyone not a fan fully understands the critique of Fox News, but more and more of us across the political spectrum arguably live in a world that is increasingly politically insular. We only hear the opinions of those who agree with us, only filter the news through sources with particular entrenched interests and can ignore anything that doesn’t meet our ideological or taste predilections. That might work in Utopia, but in a democracy, we need spaces for debate, we need to hear opinions that differ with our own and need a common set of information to make informed decisions. Just looking at the partisanship that dominates Washington DC today, we can see the results of increased insularity. Imagine if it was taken to the next level? Imagine if corporate interests were at the fulcrum of the programs’ algorithms? Imagine if an entire country could be slowly hypnotized into a waking sleep that ensured that the interests of the few dominated the interests of the many. I wonder if you already can?

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