9th January 2018
By Tom Law

In 2018 the Talk is Newsroom Tech, but in Journalism it’s the Human Touch That Counts

Aidan White

This year we are told that the talk inside media will focus on algorithms, bots, AI and mobile journalism.

The scourge of fake news – the buzzword of 2017 – remains troubling, but fires are being lit under technology platforms like Google and Facebook by policymakers and angry consumers and this threat may well diminish in the coming months particularly given that some new research suggests the problem has been exaggerated and people are not always the fools we take them for.

Nevertheless, some testing questions remain, not least being how we manage the ethics of journalism in a time of ever-expanding computer power.

Technological advances have left governments, regulators and editors scratching their heads to understand the full impact of change on politics. How do we ensure election rules are followed when voters are bombarded and targeted by unscrupulous parties? How can people trust anything people say when words and images are distorted with ease on the web?

It’s a challenging time for journalists, too. We already have some robotic systems for generating news reports – in sports, finance and weather reporting, for instance – but can artificial intelligence ever become a force for news analysis, commentary and critical journalism? And are our newsrooms equipped with the people and tech knowledge they need to follow the story through the increasingly complex web of modern communications?

Some of us are confident that, for the foreseeable future at least, algorithms cannot be trusted to understand and replace the nuanced ethical judgement of journalists and editors.

The fact that Facebook has, reluctantly, spent much of last year ratcheting up the number of people it employs as content moderators across the world is a frank admission that algorithms alone can’t handle the ethical challenges of online mischief.

By the end of the year the company had more than 8,000 live, sentient human beings attempting the impossible task of monitoring potentially abusive material being uploaded by some of the company’s two billion subscribers. Its miserable work reports the Wall Street Journal, but for those of us who have witnessed the wholesale slaughter of newsroom jobs in recent years, it’s a glimmer of hope that we may be able to turn back the relentless process of editorial cutbacks.

It also highlights how the short-term strategy of downsizing newsrooms which has seen the elimination of tens of thousands of journalists, sub-editors and desk staff over the past 15 years has wreaked havoc in journalism and undermined public trust in media.

The crisis of online abuse, fake news and collapsing public confidence has underpinned the return to basics of accuracy, verification and truth-telling in journalism over the past year, but there is much more to do.

Not least is the need to get journalism up to speed with the way that the technology works and is being used for unscrupulous politics and corporate interests.

Increasingly media recognise that to survive in journalism today people have to master how to navigate their way through the complex new language and architecture of digital communications. Journalists need to be better informed and technically savvy. Developing algorithms, mapping the digital landscape and following electronic trails is an essential part of the newsroom in this new age of journalism.

The technology that has created a whirlwind of change also has the capacity to strengthen free speech, enhance pluralism and improve the quality of public discourse. But that will not happen automatically.

Tech companies are reluctant to regulate themselves, yet they are often the best-placed organisations to understand the potential dangers of technology and to do something to counter them. But they have been slow to react to growing criticism and a question remains whether they are up to the job.

The platforms argue that it’s enough that they work within the law, but journalists know better than most that just because something is legal does not make it ethical.

Technology companies need to recognise that their business models have undermined journalism and have weakened public and private attachment to moral behaviour in our communications. If they don’t act to repair the damage that has been caused they face a mountain of new rules and regulation in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, journalists have increasing opportunities to show how technology can be used to tell stories in ever-more detailed, accurate and ethical ways. To do that effectively requires more focus on increasing technical skills in newsrooms. A helpful guidebook has just been published that gives some useful tips on how to make a start.

This free open-access guide can help journalists and researchers investigate misleading and fake information online. It describes how to track down trolls; how to better understand the way viral news and false news circulates on the web; and how to follow the money trail that underpins commercial exploitation of abusive content.

Although the guide will be particularly useful for the social media literate it provides journalists and researchers with easy methods of working that can be executed without too-much technical knowledge. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it illustrates the reality that surviving in journalism in the future will require a minimum level of understanding in how to use and develop new technical ways of analysing information.

In the coming year, the Ethical Journalism Network aims to strengthen its work in support of quality journalism with a focus on using technology wisely and ethically to improve the capacity of journalism to strengthen its fourth-estate role – holding power to account. We should not be unduly intimidated by the threat of fake news or the greed and poor performance of technology giants. Robotics and computers have their place, but it’s the power of ethical journalism driven by humanity, values and emotions, that still matters most.

Main photo: “Fake News” by Mike McKenzie (Flickr CC-BY-2.0)