Monday, November 9, 2015

Welcome to the age of Robotic Reporters.

“August CPI a new high in the past 12 months.”
Is there anything special about the above line? It is most likely that you will say ‘no’. However, will you consider it a bit more special when you come to know that this is headline of a news story written by a robot?
Throughout its history, Journalism has been heavily influenced by technological innovations. Positive impacts of technology include increase in speed of production, information delivery, reduced cost, improved accuracy etc. However each technological improvement has brought about massive changes in news rooms and the lives of journalists. “The printing press put a generation of scribes out of a job, the telegraph sent couriers scurrying to find new employment” (American Journalistic Review, 2013). The latest innovation, that is all set to revolutionize the media landscape, are algorithms and machines with artificial intelligence. The question is simple “Could Robots be the Journalists of the Future?” (Guardian, 2013). Can thinking machines truly take the place of professional journalists? Does the answer lie in the term “professional” in the question itself? In her article Zelizer (1993) writes “seeing journalism as a profession... may restrict our understanding of journalistic practice, causing us to examine only those dimensions of journalism emphasized by the frame through which we have chosen to view them.” Through this research paper I will try to understand the proper frame to examine journalism and answer the question “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than a Human Reporter?”(Wired)
We will use Humprey’s Marketing SWOT Analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity & Threat) to evaluate the relative position of the new entrant, ROBOTS, in the news making business. This in turn will help us analyze as to whether or not human journalists should feel threatened by their robot-colleagues.
Strength:       The most evident strength of robot journalist is definitely its computational prowess. According to its manufacturers as well as users robots have proved to be effective in mining huge quantities of data, pinpointing trends and patterns in data. “Automated news may lack the stylistic flavor of the best news writing, but it substitutes a meticulous commitment to factuality possible precisely because it is not human”(Carlson, 2015). However, this term ‘factuality brings forth with it a new range of problems.
Facts, according to Tuchman (1978), are “the pertinent information gathered by professionally validated methods specifying the relationship between what is known and how it is known.” While it is possible for Robots to dig out trends and patterns of preexisting data, can it ever find facts on field. Can artificial intelligence ever execute the human elements of on ground journalism? Waite (2012) writes “journalism … reflects.. Human beings: flawed, complicated, emotional. It is precisely the things that can’t be defined in a programming language that makes us human.” A critic further lashes out Canwest News Service (2011) by saying “Journalism don’t just bundle data together. They bring human presence to reporting… like imagination, humor and critical thinking.”

Another strength of robot journalism is the claim that it “removes human biases” while generating meaning from complex data (Carlson, 2015). However this very claim becomes a bit foggy when we analyze the role of the “meta journalists” or “meta writers as visualized by Narrative Science. Automated journalism can never be fully automated till the time the robots can themselves go and cover events. Till that time the frames and data will still be fed in by the journalists. In that case the lack of “human bias” is not possible.
Another key strength of robot journalism, and perhaps a one that cannot be debated against, is its speed and cost efficiency.
Weakness:     Compositional Form. Kafka (2012) writes “the result isn’t elegant but it’s perfectly readable.” While manufacturers site the experiments conducted on readers where they could not distinguish between robot writing and human writing, journalists, journalists choose to see the lack of human insights and perspectives in the articles.
Opportunity:             Cost-Cutting objective of media firms: Given the writing speed and cost of operations, robot journalism may be much cheaper to companies in long term.
Formulaic nature of conventional news: According to experts Journalists follow preexisting templates to fit facts to story forms (Darnton, 1975). This in turn helps the robot journalists get disguised into the already formulaic content.
Threat:                       Dependence on humans for data, Set up costs.
So, asking the question again, is this the end of human journalism?
As clearly seen through the SWOT analysis, robot journalism has clear strengths but humans still have the talent edge.  At the moment, the software’s algorithms mine through data and find facts and trends, and combine them with historical data and other contextual information to form narrative sentences.
Journalists, especially in India, do not seem to be too perturbed by the technology being competitor. An article in a major Indian daily newspaper, Hindu, stated “some kinds of journalism jobs will be more vulnerable than others in the coming years. At the more secure end of the spectrum will be on-the-ground reporting. It’s hard to imagine interviewing and reporting to be anything but a human activity, especially involving those aspects of life that aren’t easily amenable to the form of structured data.” (Hindu, 2015)
However journalists should not be too complacent. Technology is advancing further more rapidly. The softwares by Narrative Science and Automated Insights, for instance, can quickly spot patterns and zero in on what matters. With time it may start to mimic human writing and get better at it. It is essential that human journalists always stay one step ahead. Perhaps one way of doing it is by framing, as suggested by Barbie Zelizer, journalism as an Interpretive Community. Journalists may “establish themselves as qualified to discuss a certain issue by … interpretation from a localized, particularistic viewpoint” (Zelizer, 1993). The article further goes on to explain the importance and use of journalistic discourses to generate meaning to their work. Such discourses and on ground evaluation can’t at present be done by their robot contemporaries.
 “The moot point is journalists have to constantly ask themselves: what are they bringing to the table?” (Srinivasan, 2014).

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Press as a Historian

“What is a journalist? He is … the ‘historian’ of the moment, and truth must be his primary concern… (He should) offer an ethical corrective in the form of a concern with objectivity.... What is a practical necessity for the historian becomes an imperious law for the journalist...”   (Camus, 2005)

This famous phrase by Nobel Prize winning author, journalist, and philosopher Albert Camus, in his book Camus at Combat, explains what journalism should be. But questions arise about what journalism truly is. Does the ‘imperious law’ always apply? Most importantly, in the present day world of fast paced journalism, where stories grow stale by the hour (if not minute), can the media still be the historians of the moment?

Debates regarding the role of journalists as historians have raged on ever since the emergence of mass media. While the role of journalism is defined by some as the “Historian of the present, servant of future historians, and mediator of history” (Lavoinne, 1994), many historians like Antony Beevor believe that “journalism has spoilt the ground for historians” (Beevor, 2010). Despite the numerous questions around the distinction between the roles of a historian and that of a journalist, one thing that cannot be denied is the role of media as the makers and shapers of memories, a platform through which the world today “gains an understanding of the past, present and the possible future” (Kitch, 2006).
 Can journalists ever be called Historians? Medievalist historian Jacques Le Goff judged that if journalists “do their job well” they are “real historians of intermediate history” (Chauveau & Tetart, 1992). Zelizer, in her book, explains the interdependency of journalism and memory work saying that just as journalism needs memory work to position its recounting of public events in context, so too does memory need journalism to provide the most public drafts of past (Zelizer, 2008). Journalists have often contributed to this need of making ‘public drafts of past’ through commemorations, historical analogies, historical contexts (Edy, 1999) as well as a personal, a visual and a collectable articles and memorabilia (Kitch, 2006). Further, Kitch makes it clear, through her case study about the Times Inc., that the convergence of history and journalism can be highly popular and profitable. However she argues that confluence is not a result of a purely commercial venture, “something more is going on …. Especially at a time when media are a primary source of what most people know about history” (Kitch, 2006).
 However one can’t help but be concerned about the extent of media’s adherence to truth and objectivity of historical content, media being a profit making structure, when billions of dollars come to play. Terms like propaganda, soft censorship etc. often makes us anxious about the influence of powerful entities over media, corrupting the content to show only a perspective of the entire truth. This is perhaps one of the reasons as to why a segment of people assume that “(journalism) provides a first, rather than a final, draft of the past, leaving to the historians the final processing of the journalism’s raw events” (Zelizer, 2009).

Media is the main source from which people get to know about one’s history and form a collective memory that influences their social identity. Commemorative stories and magazines special issues can help remind people about the past, “a reminder of where we have been, and where we can go” (Rather, 2000). Historical analogies can help us understand and predict the probable future outcomes of a particular situation.  Looking back, giving an historical context to a story often helps the audience understand the circumstance better. The story looks well researched, impartial, and authentic. But again, the objectivity of media in reporting an event from the past is debatable. If the media is under any political/ corporate influence, its views on history may also be skewed. For example, in India, the current leading political party Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) often tries to portray the tenure of 10th Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the one which showed the most growth. The current, chief opposition Indian National Congress (INC) emphasizes on the tenure of 6th Prime Minister Late. Rajiv Gandhi to be the model that should be followed. The news media which are inclined towards either of the political parties, indirectly frame the news to reflect the party’s beliefs. In other words, the viewers get slowly polarized into believing the superiority of either of the two different perspectives to the country’s political history.  
However, in this 21st century, we have to focus on another form of media. The PEW Research Center review of the State of Media in 2015 shows a clear boom of online media, and steady retreat of traditional ones. Digital media, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are slowly becoming the most widely used source of news updates. The huge storage capability and design and searching capabilities can help bring a revolution to formation of collective memory. For the first time ever, any news, or record, or post on any topic are permanently stored in the cyberspace and can be retrieved and recirculated by ordinary citizen. While many see social media as a platform handing the power of creating history, and choosing historical perspectives   to the common citizen, others may argue that the content shared on social media are mostly sourced from digital versions of traditional media.
To conclude, while the objectivity of news reporting is debatable, the role of news in influencing the collective memory is undeniable. Whether news media can or should be the ultimate draftsman of the history of people is controversial, but the role of media as the important first draftsman of history is unquestionable. Perhaps media’s take on this matter can be understood through the words of Daniel Bilalian, the news anchor of Antenne 2 Channel’s evening news, as he covered live the East Germans flocking through the newly breached Berlin wall. He announced:
“We do not have the historian’s stamp of approval to enable us to produce perfect report, but we would like to let you live the historic moment as they happen.”                                               (Bilalian, 1989).

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Press as a Commercial Enterprise

The Founding Fathers regarded press as the fourth estate of society (Nicholas& McChesney, 2006). Many researchers and even the Supreme Court, in matters of Freedom of Press, has argued strongly for the “necessity of the press as the essential underpinning of our constitutional republic” (Nicholas & McChesney, 2009). However with the change of times there has been a profound change in the role and function of journalism. News, many argue, has changed from being a ‘reflection of reality’ to a commodity which is ‘manufactured’ to maximize profits and fit to the demands of the market to help gather special interests (McManus, 1999). Nicholas and McChesney further express their disappointment that despite tremendous discussions on the fall in standard of journalism, research has mostly taken place “on the symptoms rather than providing remedies.” Through this reflection note I aim to enlist both the symptoms indicated in the readings and discussing some possible solutions based on existing media structures around the world.
In a free market press system is the press truly free? If not, who influences the press? Herbert Gans has answered “news media is caught in a tug of war between powerful news sources and consumers.” Other researchers have pointed out other forms of influence such as political party, powerful sources, and influence of the environment. McManus argues strongly that the chief influencers are “the major investors and owners.” Many researchers have also blamed the new media for the steady demise of the traditional media systems. The same situation has been reflected in the PEW Reports 2015 where a steady rise in digital media can be observed along with a gradual decline in popularity of print, cable etc. Bagdikian writes that “in the reign of the new media cartel, the integrity of much of the country’s professional news has become more ambiguous than ever.”  However researchers like Pickard have been less critical of new media. According to him the internet is not “challenging legacy media , rather supplementing it by smaller niche audiences, or finding a place in the ecosystem as suppliers of niche content to bigger media outlets” (Pickard, 2014). Nevertheless he has critiqued the business models of newspapers trying to tap the digital environment. He states that each platform requires clear distinct strategies and effective revenue models (Pickard, 2009). Isaacton prescribes micropayments for online content ( Isaacton , 2009). Nicholas and McChesney emphasizes on the necessity of government intervention. According to them, the press is currently indirectly influenced by the government through subsidies, tax cuts etc.  Hence, as complete freedom from the state is not possible, only government can “through policies and subsidies” provide a stable institutional framework to journalism.
While all the researchers have been equivocal in spotting the ill effects of commercialization on journalism, the prescription for recovery has been few and diverse. To apply these solutions in a real world model we first try to find the most “free press” in the world.
Nonprofit organization, Reporters without Borders, have been ranking 180 countries according to the independence of their media systems for more than a decade. The rankings are based on the following categories Pluralism, Media independence, Environment and self censorship, Legislative framework, Transparency, Infrastructure and Abuses faced by the institutions.
According to The Press Freedom Index ( 2015), the current world leaders in press freedom are
1.      Finland 7.52
2.     Norway  7.75
3.     Denmark  8.24
4.     Nether land 9.22
While United States ranked 49 in the index, India ranked 136. Articles on the internet show people’s disappointment on the plummet of US rankings, terming it as “not living up to the First Amendment” (yahoo news, 2014). But an interesting question arises; can the media structure of Finland provide us with a clue as to attain a balanced, free media?
A case study of the Finnish media shows that the Scandinavian nation has a very high readership rate. Around 76% of people over 10 year age read the newspaper ( European Center of Journalism, 2013). Thus, can a big press market assure incentive for freedom of Press? Maybe not always, as proven by the fact that India is the country with the largest number of newspapers, yet it is ranked number 136. But the percentage of informed population and readership rate of news may influence people to demand unbiased content.
Finland also has a strong union to pitch for reporter’s rights. The ‘Union of Journalists’ has over 15,500 active members (, 2014). The Council for Mass Media, Finland helps self regulate media content, hence minimizing government influence. Thus can having a strong journalistic union encourage press freedom?
Also, according to Jyrkiainen, “the structure of Finnish newspaper industry is based on a few strong nationwide newspapers on a wide regional daily press, and on numerous local papers” (Jyrkiainen , 2009).  Thus, does a strong localized press structure make journalism free from bias?
Lastly, the “Finnish government has made transparency and information availability- essentially a good journalism- an institutional prerogative” (Merchant, 2013). The government is said to foster, promote and safeguard the press. This perhaps brings me back to Bagdikan when he says that large “communications cartels …(has been) made possible by the withdrawal of government intervention that once aspired to protect consumers and move towards the ideal diversity of content.” Thus, what should be the role of government in journalism?
Whether Finland can be considered as the perfect model of press freedom, or the above factors can influence the media environment in any other country, are questions that demand further research.  But in this age when the presence and the strength of the great watchdog of society, the fourth estate is under threat, it is essential for society to find an way to restore media to its former glory. “Going back is not an option, nor is desirable…. We have to move forward to a system that creates journalism far superior to that of the recent past.” (Nicholas and McChesney, 2009)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Changing News Networks, Ecologies & Ecosystems

“Traditional news media are for people…. like … our grandparents, I get my news through twitter…”                                                   (Sophomore, Course J201 UW-M, 2015)

The role of a Teaching Assistant for ‘Introduction to Mass Communication’, course J201 at UW-M, has made me aware about the changing attitudes of youth towards news media. While conducting a discussion session on Entman’s “The Nature and Sources of News”, the overwhelming majority of the students seemed to follow news solely through their social media accounts. Such “mobile and tablet applications such as Flipboard, Zite, and Facebook Paper are driven by automated forms of personalized content packaging” (Lewis & Westland). Algorithms used in social media platforms help users get tailor-made content, according to their viewing patterns. But many researchers have expressed their unease about the overall impact of such platforms on journalism. I share a similar concern, not just for journalism or traditional media, but for the readers too. In the small sample on 36 students in my discussion session, I have observed that the range of topics of awareness of the students, who say that their sole source of news content is Social Media, seems to be limited (as demonstrated by the answers to quizzes held in the session ever alternate week). The cause of the same can be speculated to be the fact that social media algorithms display news that match the user’s preference. Thus, the variety of news displayed may be highly skewed. Today majority of the population obtain their news from digital sources (PEW Research Center, 2015). But “as the news industry and journalism profession begins to settle on new business and editorial models for the Internet Age, (we) should not forget … What kind of work constitutes legitimate journalism?” (Anderson, 2013).
This week’s readings show us the face of changing media ecology in the digital age. The content can be broadly classified as changing inter-medium and intra-medium ecology. While the equation between the different mediums, digital and traditional, seem to be evolving with time, equations of the various elements of the digital and traditional mediums too seem to be changing with time. Digital media has “confounded the boundaries between production and consumption, professional and nonprofessional, and intra and extra-organizational domains.” (Lewis and Wesland)
“The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication…” (Barry, 2012). The notion of people as a passive audience has been replaced by “active meaning makers in the process of media consumption” (Bolin 2012). But research shows that audiences are allowed to participate in mainly one stage of news making, interpretation – by commenting on public forums on digital media. “The audience are still, overall, receivers of information created and controlled by the journalist” writes Singer et al. However slowly algorithms are taking control of the information dissemination process. Advocates of algorithms as editors of social media, ‘robot-journalism’, often justify it by stating that it is just the actualization of audience preferences. But critiques argue that “the precise nature of the algorithm involved, and the implications for journalism and public knowledge that they entail is yet to be examined.” (Lewis and West Lund, 2014)
 Another source of concern is perhaps the changing nature and purpose of journalism. With the convergence of technology and journalism, the focus is slowly shifting “to figuring out how you can use software to tell a story, and do it in a more comprehensive way than maybe had been done previously” (Peter Edstrom, Minneapolis–St. Paul, June 5, 2012).  While the fusion of knowledge of technologists and news journalists is sure to change the rules of storytelling and may help journalism to evolve further, concerns still loom about ‘what stories are being told’. With algorithms doing the work of editors on major social media and websites, do people still get objective, all encompassing “stories that they need?”
While the benefits of digital media are undeniable, many are anxious about the changing inter-media ecology. Bob Brown in a news interview on ABC said, “I'm worried about the traditional media, but I think the new media is a plus for democracy” (Brown, 2011). However, in his Monograph on Ecology of news production, Lowrey notes that “Any new media entity scours the environment for news of change, responds strategically and seeks a sustainable niche, but it also begins to seek stability, familiarity, legitimation, and validation from similar media.” Both his studies show that new media over time tend towards the familiar and popular rather than uncertain. Lowrey concludes, “Media adhere to their own kind and to past paths already taken, but they also respond to changing economic and social conditions.” Thus, the role of traditional media may still be that of a guide to new media. Which perhaps brings us back to the situation in Philadelphia demonstrated by Anderson “the news ecosystem has a center, that center remained the traditional media organisations that historically have produces news objects…” The same situation is reflected today in social media where majority of the news content is sourced from digital form of traditional news media.
To conclude, Westlund writes, “The roles, boundaries and processes of news work has become increasingly hard to detect  ... Future research might more thoroughly review, synthesize, and develop models for journalism, of which there are relatively few emphasizing the distinct interplay of and tension between human and technology, or manual and computational modes of orientation and output” (Westlund, 2013). While we still await the optimal model for online journalism, I was introduced to a possible bridge, a probable step towards evolution of “digi- journalism”, by a student of my discussion session in Journalism 201. The latest trend among youth seems to be digital newsletters like the Skimm, Need 2 Know and Next Draft, that preserve the traditional model of human editing yet exploit the immense possibilities and audience of digital media. They cater to the audience preference by making the content easy to read, humorous and succinct. The stand of and Next draft on this issue of journalism in the digital era is echoed by the editor’s message on their homepage:
 “I am the algorithm. Each morning I visit about 75 news sites, and from that swirling nightmare of information quicksand, I pluck the top ten most fascinating items of the day, which I deliver with a fast, pithy wit that will make your computer device vibrate with delight. No bots. No computer algorithms.” (Pell, Next Draft, 2015).