Technology Journalism: Robo-Journalists

The awkward moment when you hit “Save” rather than “Publish” and so hand in a blog post late…

– Nikolày

I understand technology journalism as journalism focused on technology, but I also came across a semi-related sector of journalism I had no idea existed – and it’s too cool not to share: robo-journalists.

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Now if you’re anything like me, hearing the name “robo-journlists” immediately conjures up the mental image of Robocop sitting in an editors room, slaving away over the next big scandal. While the reality isn’t as iconically awesome as that, it’s still pretty cool.

Over the last couple of years, organisations such as the Associated Press have been using automated algorithms that are able to produce earning reports that ultimately result in approximately three and a half thousand stories per financial quarter.

As of last year, Reuters has also partnered with tech company Wibbitz in order to create an algorithm that is able to automatically create digital video packages for news events as soon as pictures, information and video clips become available. While the robo-journalism technology is primarily intended to create digital video to summarise European football matches, it is planned to develop such technology to cover all sorts of news genres.

May as well throw in the towel, by the time I finish this Journalism degree, I could very well be redundant.

Data Visualisation As Art

If my last blog post about data journalism wasn’t a dead give away – I’m not a huge fan of numbers. Just the mere mention of numerical equations results in terrifying flashbacks of failing 10th Grade Algebra. So when the course outline listed two weeks worth of topics purely on data, I was less than thrilled. But turns out data visualisation is actually visually beautiful, and can have layers of meaning.

Pictured below: Not Me – It’s A Fan of Numbers, Puntastic

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In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright defined art as a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use. Data, on the other hand, typically records information about occurring phenomena. While some may find numbers fascinating and certainly suitable for human use, I personally don’t find them subjectively beautiful as numbers on their own. Yet once the data is rendered, or presented, in a manner that is visually presentable to the numerically illiterate,

Projects like the An Examination of US Gun Murders (screenshot below) thoroughly exemplify the marriage of numerical data and beautiful visuals to create art with meaning that can then be taken away to be used by humans. Demonstrating the number of gun killings in the US, the age at which the victims died (represented by the orange parts of the lines) in comparison to the age at which they would have been expected to die due to natural causes. The piece isn’t only informative but evokes a stirring of emotions as the harsh realisation of years of life lost to senseless violence soars higher and higher on the counter on the top right of the screen.

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Full Video Here, Just Click On The Picture

 

Stories in Data Journalism

Narrative is essential for context and meaning. That’s the point I’m about to try and make – let’s see how it goes.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in one of my Masters level media papers (not this one, don’t worry) where the lecturer was attempting to explain his belief that because Julien Assange created Wikileaks and enabled huge data dumps of information that he was now one of the world’s most influential journalists. The thirty or so students in the class all seemed to unanimously agree – except for me. Something didn’t feel right about the statement. Why would providing copious amounts of information to the public, void of any sort of contextual political or social narrative to explain the information, suddenly entitle someone to be called a journalist? I wouldn’t throw flour and eggs and cocoa powder at your face, tell you I made you a cake, and then proclaim myself one of the world’s most influential chefs while you sit there covered in ingredients wondering what the hell just happened and who the guy throwing food about the place was.

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Then I watched a TED talk by Ben Wellington about data and stories, and immediately felt a probably overinflated sense of affirmation in my stance. In this talk, he discussed how integral it is for a journalist to attach narrative and story to data sets, otherwise people won’t care. Summarised into four short points on how to attach narrative:

1) Connect with people,

2) Try to convey one idea,

3) Keep it simple,

4) Stick to what you know best.

Without applying such an approach, data is just numbers – and not THAT many people like math.

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Network Effect Changing Gatekeeping

When I first started studying media and journalism, my slightly aggressive and red faced American lecturer was always harping on about the fundamental importance of the role of “gatekeeping” in determining what made the news. In the traditional sense, gatekeeping referred to the privileged position journalists found themselves in where they were able to pick and choose what information was important enough to be shared with the public. While the newsworthiness of particular stories tended to differ between publications, there was an inevitable consensus as to the important qualities a news story had to have in order to pass through the metaphorical gate and into the public sphere. Such a consensus relied on journalistic ethics being foundational to the journalist’s ethos.

Now, whether or not this method resulted in impartial and partisan news reporting is up for debate – but the purpose of this blog is to rather discuss the notion that the traditional gatekeeping framework no longer exists due to the rise of social media.

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As seen in this article, the traditional understanding of gatekeeping in news media is changing due the dynamic social space of social media – and that gatekeepers are now being replaced by what’s known as ‘social mediators’. Rather than news media being a one way street – being passed from the organisation through a gatekeeper and onto the public – social media has enabled more of a conversation between news outlets and the public, requiring engagement and resulting in a modern day hybrid of both mass communication and private communication.

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Post 250 Words Comments: I think the most interesting side of the network effect changing how gatekeeping works (or doesn’t work) isn’t necessarily within the realm of news media – but rather in media more generally and how artists (particularly musicians) are able to share their content on social media without a “gatekeeping” record label from moderating, editing, and generally interfering with the content the artists wish to produce. It’s going to be interesting to see if record companies are able to adapt their business models in order the survive the changing dynamic.

Digital Audiences: User-Created Content

Ever since the ‘Arab Spring’ swept across the Middle East, there has been a larger general awareness of the power of social media websites and how their presences and use can be foundational organisational tools for instigating social and political change.

But Adam Curtis has a different opinion on the rise of audience created content.

The argument goes like this:

In the 1950s, not long after the invention of television itself, television journalists essentially served as prompters for various government figureheads and their official viewpoints. Journalism itself, at the time, was simply a means of communication from the government down to the people. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, journalism saw a change in function due to political scandals – exemplified by Watergate – seeing a transition in journalist behaviour – joining the mainstream shift in society to question political power, big business and bureaucracy. Yet such an optimistic approach to proactive investigative journalism didn’t last…

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 seemed to have a lasting negative impact on journalism as the certainties of “good and bad” and “political right vs. political left” became blurred and ill defined. But rather than working to make sense of the new complexity of the modern era, journalists chose to turn away from moral principles and turn their attention towards facilitating a simple recording of experience – asking for audience generated content – photos and videos – under the guise of “democratised media”, yet in reality what was created was a “vast echo-chamber of uncertainty and unaccountability” ultimately void of context.

Sounds very similar to the audience generated content on social media these days.

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Facebook & Ideological Segregation

Yup, this is going to be a Trump post – so I can understand if you’d wanna skip reading it.

Trump winning the 2016 American election surprised a lot of people. A LOT.

I wasn’t so surprised though. Not because I supported him. Gosh no. Just that there was an obvious and observable disenfranchisement of Republicans occurring across America, and it was ultimately unsurprising that they voted the way they did.

And Facebook, in a way, made it possible.

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Hear me out.

Facebook enables a structured flow of information that is dependent on those who you network with – and therefore there tends to be a clustering of political ideologies within social groups distinguished by demographic and geographic location. Essentially, who you’re friends with on Facebook.

In a digital climate, people’s exposure to news and civic information is increasingly being filtered through social media – namely Facebook. And the news stories they are being exposed to is reliant on the social network of friends that have selected and cultivated for themselves. Thus we have the creation of a type of ideological segregation, where people choose to be part of one ideological circle and segregate themselves away from the opposition viewpoint. In Republican America, where individuals are already feeling disenfranchised and isolated from the nation’s political rhetoric, it doesn’t matter if the news they are exposed to is “fake news”, at least it’s not liberal news from Team Hillary.

And from a particular perspective it’s an awesome underdog story, of how a disenfranchised people found their voice through the medium of new technology.

It’s a shame it just had to result in Trump.

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The Internet Is Great And All…

… But it straight up ruins great ideas too.

My family and I got our first home computer in the late 90s, and after the hours it took to set up the colossal beast that was Windows 98, my pre-teen self was introduced to the glory that was the Internet – agonising dial-up tone and all. In the years that followed, I quickly began to discover the wonders within the Internet; the plethora of endless information about every conceivable topic, online communities with virtual friends #neopets4lyfe, and just so much free porn. But as I grew in both age and maturity, I slowly started to learn that behind the seeming goodness of the internet was a hidden truth about humanity – people are dicks.

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The internet became less about information and community, and more about a race to see who could comment “first” on a post, to call someone “gay” anonymously, and to trick a friend into clicking on a link that sent them to something truly awful. What became quickly obvious was that the internet was taking great ideas, and then ruining them.

Memes. They are the epitome of an online lack of creativity, desperately trying to be funny while avoiding the work and effort required to do so. But before the age of Grumpy Cat, Overly Attached Girlfriend, or – my personal favourite – “Dick Butt” (pictured above), “meme” had intellectual relevance. In 1976, world renowned biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to give meaning to a symbol within culture that transmits from one mind to another, changing over time through Darwinian development. An idea that, once developed, evolved naturally as it was passed from one mind to the next. But instead of this beautiful conceptualisation of the evolution of the human intellectual impact, internet memes are subject to no sort of evolution progress. They are mere copies of symbols with imposed changes on texts to alter messages.

So thanks internet, for taking an insightful and intellectual idea relating to the human evolution of ideas and turning it into Dick Butt.

Thank you very much.

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