Javaun Moradi, a digital strategist and product developer for NPR, is one of a new breed of digital journalists who are working to weave the use of algorithms and new kinds of data into the arsenal of skills in the newsroom. In particular, he sees sensor networks—low-cost devices that civic-interest groups use to monitor things like air quality—as a potential data source. “It’s coming at us whether we like it or not,” he says. “A lot of inexpensive devices will start sending us a great deal more information.” Moradi can easily imagine journalists building and maintaining their own networks of information. “Up until now,” he notes, “journalists have had really very little data, and mostly other people’s data, acquired from elsewhere.” At the same time, Moradi points out, there are bound to be new dilemmas and challenges around the ownership and control of information.
Alex Howard, who writes about data journalism, government, and the open-data movement for O’Reilly Media, also flags the ownership and control of data as a key issue. “For lots of types of data—finance, for instance—there are laws that say who can obtain it and who can use it,” Howard notes. “But new kinds of information don’t necessarily have legal and regulatory frameworks.” How newsrooms obtain and handle information—what their standards and practices are—is likely to become an important part of differentiating news brands.
Journalism by numbers does not mean ceding human process to the bots. Every algorithm, however it is written, contains human, and therefore editorial, judgments. The decisions made about what data to include and exclude adds a layer of perspective to the information provided. There must be transparency and a set of editorial standards underpinning the data collection.
The truth is, those streams of numbers are going to be as big a transformation for journalism as rise of the social Web. Newsrooms will rise and fall on the documentation of real-time information and the ability to gather and share it. Yet while social media demands skills of conversation and dissemination familiar to most journalists, the ability to work with data is a much less central skill in most newsrooms, and still completely absent in many. Automation of stories and ownership of newly collected data could both reduce production costs and create new revenue sources, so it ought to be at the heart of exploration and experimentation for newsrooms. But news executives have missed the cues before. The industry shot itself in the foot 15 years ago by failing to recognize that search and information filtering would be a core challenge and opportunity for journalism; this time, there is an awareness that data will be similarly significant, but once again the major innovations appear destined to come from outside the field.
To solve journalism’s existential problems, the field needs to forge a close relationship with information science. At Columbia Journalism School, Medill, Missouri, and elsewhere, bridges between computer science and journalism are being hastily constructed. Every week sees new collaborative computer science and journalism meetups or hackathons. Enlightened news organizations already have APIs (application programming interfaces) so that outsiders can access elements of their data. But much of the activity remains marginal rather than core to business planning and development.
“Data are everywhere all the time,” notes Mark Hansen, director of Columbia University’s new Brown Institute for Media Innovation. “They have something to say about us and how we live. But they aren’t neutral, and neither are the algorithms we rely on to interpret them. The stories they tell are often incomplete, uncertain, and open-ended. Without journalists thinking in data, who will help us distinguish between good stories and bad? We need journalists to create entirely new kinds of stories, new hybrid forms that engage with the essential stuff of data—the digital shadows of who we are, now, collectively.”
In the remaking of the field, the shadow of information is something journalism should no longer be afraid of.