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Journalism, Robots, And Algorithms

In light of the Facebook trending news controversy, there are even more troubling aspects of journalism brewing.

My wife and I were talking about Apple News the other day, and she expressed concern about not understanding what determined the stories she is shown. This got into a larger discussion about the weird state of modern journalism, and I mentioned John Gruber’s thoughts about how curation of news feeds is becoming more automated:

If news curation can be automated, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Progress in the industrialized world has always involved previously labor-intensive jobs being replaced by automated machinery. We’ve gotten to the point now where some of this work is white collar, not blue collar, and some journalists seem offended by the notion. Their downfall is their dogmatic belief in not having a point-of-view, of contorting themselves to appear not to have a point of view — which, as Jay Rosen has forcefully argued, is effectively a “view from nowhere”. The irony is that machines don’t have a point of view — they are “objective”. Over the last half century or so, mainstream U.S. journalism has evolved in a way that has writers and editors acting like machines. They’ve made it easier for themselves to be replaced by algorithms. Most readers won’t even notice.

At the risk of being a lightning rod, I’ll offer a subject that is an obvious example of where this type of reporting is widespread – climate change. Many writers go out of their way to appear balanced when writing about it when in fact they would serve their readers and themselves better by being accurate. Climate change, after all, is clearly not a phenomenon with 50% uncertainty that requires an article that gives 50% of attention to each side. Yet a lot of news organizations seem to insist that journalists portray it with this false sense of balance.

And Gruber really hits it right with this:

I do two things here at DF most days: find interesting things to link to, and comment on them. An algorithm may well beat me at finding interesting links. My job then, is to be a better writer — smarter, funnier, keener, more surprising — than an algorithm could be. When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard… What I’m saying is more If what you do can be replaced by a robot (whether hardware or software), it will happen — and modern U.S. news journalism’s brand of “objectivity” feels algorithmic.

In other words, you can be interesting and compelling and still be objective. Robotic reporting can’t do that.

Another view of what’s gone wrong is this piece with George Clooney’s thoughts on a more insidious aspect of modern journalism:

Clooney also used the press conference to attack cable news networks for allowing their output to slide further into infotainment, a move that he says helped Trump become a viable candidate for the presidency… asked about his own film about TV news, Good Night, and Good Luck (which told the story of Edward R Murrow’s analytical takedown of McCarthyism), [he] said that the problem in the television industry was that broadcasters had lost sight of the idea that news was never designed to be immensely profitable, but that it was designed to inform.

It’s clear that the Internet, not television, is driving news now, but it’s the same issue: monetization, in web parlance. Monetization über alles, and this is what you get.

Categories    Technology    Politics