Monday, February 11, 2013

Georgia Tech Explores the Digital Future of Journalism

As technology continues to transform the business of news dissemination, what role does computation play in the practice of journalism—both today and in the future? Last week, the Georgia Tech College of Computing tried to answer that question through the second “Computation + Journalism Symposium,” held Jan. 31-Feb. 1. The event brought together leading academics and practitioners from both the computation and journalism worlds to discuss how computation has affected the world of news, and where it is going in the future.

“Computational journalism describes the impact of modern computational methods and tools on the field of journalism,” said symposium organizer Irfan Essa, professor in the School of Interactive Computing, who coined the phrase “computational journalism” to describe this new field of study. “The symposium identified valuable thematic takeaways for incorporating emerging technology more closely into the journalism vocation, so that information may be packaged and distributed most effectively for the purpose of civil engagement.”

The two-day symposium featured professors from Columbia, the University of California-Berkley, Cornell, Dartmouth and Georgia Tech as well as journalists from The Atlantic, Wired, Reuters, BuzzFeed and The New York Times Magazine. Session topics covered of a variety of issues including media economy, data verification, social media analysis, digital storytelling and mobile, video, and artificial intelligence technologies. The event also generated lively discussions on Twitter, making the event hashtag (#compj) the top trending hashtag in Atlanta during the event.

The symposium’s speakers, online discussions and attendee exit surveys helped pinpoint the takeaways Essa mentioned, which include:
•    Journalists must become computationally competent to help shape the tools they need
•    Audiences expect journalists to interact & build trust through technology
•    Journalists must collaborate with other disciplines to thrive

Takeaway #1: Journalists need to be educated in computational literacy in order to make tools, not just use them.

Due to the speeds at which news and technology are evolving, developing useful computational tools for journalists is difficult. Presently, there is a gap between the technology that currently exists and the technology that should exist. As a result, journalists should be educated in the methods of designing and building technological tools that are fundamental in this fast-paced, technology-driven world.  During the opening session, Phil Meyer, professor emeritus and former holder of the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasized the types of training that should be required of journalists today.

“There are new tools and ways to get information, but we still need to teach journalists how to recognize valuable news and how to tell the story,” Meyer said. “Journalists must be taught critical thinking, how to incorporate the scientific method into their work, and how to make new tools, not just use them”

Takeaway #2: Instead of simply attracting audiences, journalists should focus on interacting and building trust with those audiences. Technological tools are necessary to accomplish that goal.

Historically, journalists have been concerned with citing facts to reveal truth. However, it is increasingly difficult to sort through the massive amounts of data available in a technology-driven age. As a result, building trust among their audience is more imperative in journalism than ever before and journalists must learn how to utilize technology in order to apply the large amounts of data available.

"Content from the social web plays an increasingly important role in almost every major news story,” said David Clinch, editorial director for Storyful, the first social media newswire. “A key set of problems for news organizations in regard to social content is discovery, verification and access to the videos and images that emerge.”

Computational tools are instrumental in verifying data and, as a result, helping establish trust among one’s audience. During his presentation at the symposium, Clinch described how Storyful has developed a process, which they have dubbed the "human algorithm," that combines cutting-edge technology and traditional journalism to help news clients know the content Storyful provides is verified, has a full context around it and has been cleared for them to use on all their platforms.

“Journalists,” Meyer added, “must focus on building a reputation for reliability and trust and not news that has entertainment value simply to reach the largest audience.”

Storyful’s method is one of several examples of how new technology is revolutionizing the way journalists identify insightful and accurate data. The symposium highlighted other computational tools, such as artificial intelligence (smart data gathering, for instance), video and mobile technologies, that are rapidly altering the way journalists gather and disseminate news. Similarly, display technologies (how information is presented on a device) are changing, requiring journalists to keep up with a reader’s expectations for how they can interact with information.

Takeaway #3: Collaboration across a variety of disciplines is key in order for the field of journalism to evolve alongside technology.

“This event created an imperative dialogue between journalists and technologists,“ Essa said. “Academia needs to study and develop tools that can then be widely disseminated to journalists, especially since research and development are difficult to accomplish from the journalists’ side.”

Essa added that, as computer-driven forces like automation and aggregation increasingly alter the role of journalists and journalism in society, computation can become a force of deliberate, positive social impact in journalism and civic life. However, in order for computation and journalism to work together successfully, further collaboration is required.

“Historically, there has been doom and gloom about every technological change,” Essa said. “Nothing is going to go away, but evolution is important. The role of technology in journalism will only increase and, therefore, collaboration is necessary for evolution in both fields.”

The College of Computing offered the first Computation + Journalism Symposium in 2008. According to Essa, despite its not having a journalism department, Georgia Tech’s dedication to human-centered computing makes the Institute a natural sponsor for the study of computational journalism. For more information about the symposium, including videos of all panel sessions, please visit Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) and GVU Center helped organize this event.

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