The annual New Practices of Journalism conference at Sciences Po University in Paris last week focused on how algorithms, robots and data security are shaping journalism. Ashleigh Tullis reports her top take-aways.
“All algorithms are biased,” Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programmes at Poynter warned. McBride and Nicholas Diakopoulos, assistant professor at the University of Maryland and a Tow Centre fellow, discussed algorithmic accountability. Algorithms help journalists manage more information more quickly and with less labour. They collect information and give it meaning by aggregating data. Algorithms have the potential to influence journalists’ reputations, the legal and democratic systems and freedom of information.
McBride and Diakopoulos raised questions about the positive and negative uses of algorithms. Diakopoulos asked, “What role will journalists play in investigating biases and power?'” McBride backed that up, “If journalists aren’t holding algorithms accountable than no one is.” She said journalists’ had an obligation to hold other algorithms and their own to account.
McBride said, “most of the time humans cannot detect what was written by an algorithm and what was written by a human.” In the automated writing pipeline, algorithms can make inaccuracies and errors when producing stories, said Diakopoulos.
The News York Times 4th Down Bot is a popular sport bot that tries to make predictions of every fourth down in football. They used this as an example to show how journalism can benefit from algorithms because the process of collecting and analysing the data previously took many resources.
Diakopoulos argued that news organisations needed to remain transparent when using social media news bots. McBride said journalists needed to make readers aware that they are interacting with algorithms. Journalists can use another platform such as Twitter or Reddit or as Diakopoulos suggested, perhaps an ombudsman is needed to help regulate their use.
Journalism and paranoia: how to deal with digital privacy and security
Susan McGregor, the deputy director of the Tow Centre asked if we should be paranoid about data security. She gave examples and practical strategies to help journalists be prepared when dealing with online security. US law governs major companies, such as Facebook and Google, and that can affect what information is released. McGregor cited the case of James Risen, a New York Times journalist who is being forced to reveal his source by the US justice department or be imprisoned. She used it as an example of a recent case that deals directly with source protection in the digital age.
She warned of the potential security problems with mobile phones. A phone acts as a radio that broadcasts a high density of information every time it connects to WIFI. It does not protect an individual’s private information. McGregor also noted that smartphones could be used as a tracking device.
Journalists need to educate, organise, cooperate and innovate in order to handle information sharing on the web, McGregor said. She suggested new practices needed to be implemented by organisations and the industry. They need to discuss how they deal with information. Media organisations should ask how they store information, how journalists take notes, if and how information is shared. “The cloud is vulnerable in a number of ways. You cannot consider it to be private,” she said.
Journalists need to work with their sources in order to protect them, “to lead their sources to communication methods that are secure.” McGregor suggested encrypting mobile and computer devices, a two-factor authentication, changing passwords to passphrases and asked, does it really need to be in email? Her main message was: “Don’t be paranoid, be prepared.” McGregor pointed out that journalists’ jobs have been changing for 20 years and they are still learning. The issue of security needs to be addressed at an industry level and organisations need to devote resources and implement editorial policies to help protect journalists, their information and sources, she said.
How to manage a newsroom in a digital era?
Quartz has come a long way since starting up in a small Soho apartment in New York said Lauren Brown, editor in charge of special operations at Quartz. Brown discussed the strategies and practices Quartz uses to remain ahead in the online age, with social media playing a major part. Quartz believes that the headline should be the tweet and it should be the most interesting thing in the story. Brown said, “60 to 70% of our traffic comes from social media, which is why our headlines are so powerful.” Although, she said that a story cannot just have a catchy headline, the content has to be engaging.
Quartz have a strong focus on creating shareable content and believe it is important to differentiate themselves from traditional media. Quartz’s readers want short, focused, sharable stories that are less than 500 words or long form, narrative analysis that are longer than 800 words. Brown said, “It is just part of the way we continue to work. It’s just about being nimble and being scrappy and seeing what works.”
Mathias Müller von Blumencron, editor of digital activities at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) gave some insight into the German publication’s digital transformation: photographers had become video journalists, the news cycle was now 24-hours and there was an attempt to get journalists on Twitter. Müller von Blumencron said FAZ had redesigned their mobile site and created new apps that did not exist before. Online traffic had doubled. FAZexperts were put on camera to create explanatory videos. He said, “we’re not afraid of the future, we’re not afraid of failure. We do things that haven’t been done before, and if it works it works.”
Ethics training for journalists
Journalists face ethical dilemmas daily, but the blurring of who claims to be a journalist means not every “journalist” has had ethics training. Samantha Grant, director of Gush Productions, presented her new online game, Decisions on Deadlines. Players are journalists running down stories in a fictional town. They have to find stories and pursue tips, reporting daily on the ‘who, what, when, where and why,’ whilst facing ethical challenges. Grant said the game was a companion project for her feature documentary, A Fragile Trust, which tells the story of infamous plagiarist, Jayson Blair from The New York Times.
Players are asked ethical questions like, would they pay a source? Would they allow publication of an edited photo? And had they checked the facts? “If the game is fun then it can capture an audience and make the training palatable,” Grant said. Players are scored on their accuracy, depth of reporting, speed and ethical behaviour.
Grant discussed the importance of building another tool to help market a product, such as an app or game and said it was important for journalists to understand that this was now a requirement of their jobs.
This post was first published by the World Editors Forum on www.editorsweblog.org and is republished here with their kind permission.
IMAGE: Ecole de journalisme de Sciences Po Facebook page.
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