Digital Tools Enhance Quality Journalism and Expose Fake News

January 10, 2018

Technology is changing journalism in ways no one could have imagined when Columbia Journalism School opened in 1912, and the algorithms, bots and trolls that affect how we get news today are just some of the complicating factors in the new information ecosystem.

Automation is already here. The Associated Press now uses software from a company called Automated Insights to construct articles about corporate earnings. The sports pages of The Washington Post feature content from a bot called Heliograf, an automated story-telling technology that covers local high school football games.

And according to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, an avalanche of news from a multitude of sources that can make it hard for readers to determine what’s true. “Social media has made a practice—and a fortune—out of erasing traditional boundaries between different types of material. Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism and advertising, we now have ‘content,’” Emily Bell, a British journalist who is the founding director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, wrote recently in The Guardian.

Jonathan Albright, the center’s research director, published research last October showing how six now-closed Russian-controlled Facebook accounts spread content to millions of people in the U.S. during the 2016 election campaign. “It was an attack, it was a weapon, and there was no clarity in where it came from or who had paid for it from the get-go,” he said.

The availability of massive datasets has created a new kind of journalism, with benefits as well as risks. “You can discover patterns, correlations and maybe even causal relationships that would be impossible to do manually,” said Jeannette Wing, the Avanessians Director of Columbia’s Data Science Institute and a professor of computer science. But there are pitfalls as well, she added, because there may be social bias in constructing the models used to analyze the information coming in.

Starting this summer, the Journalism School will offer a three-semester master’s degree in data journalism, with courses in the foundations of computing, database management and using algorithms to build a narrative. It is one of several initiatives by the school, many of them interdisciplinary, to prepare students for the digital future. The first, in 2011, was a dual-degree master’s program in journalism and computer science with Columbia Engineering.

“So much of the world around us, so much of lived experience is being transformed into data,” said Mark Hansen, east coast director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a joint venture of the Journalism School and Stanford’s School of Engineering. “It is extremely important now that we make sure the journalists graduating have some training in data. Everybody ought to know how to code, even a little, to better understand how the systems we rely on to bring us information work.”

Recently, the Brown Institute helped develop a course with the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation that teaches students how to use maps as a reporting tool and as a way to structure and organize knowledge. And a joint summer program offered by the Journalism School and the Department of Computer Science will offer hands-on training in using data, code and algorithms to enhance storytelling. “It’s the benefit of being part of a world-class research institution,” said Hansen.

The Brown Institute also awards one-year “Magic Grants” of up to $150,000 to explore new ways of practicing journalism. This year, Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society is studying the impact of losing weather stations after Rwanda’s 1994 civil war and genocide. Marguerite Holloway, a professor of professional practice at the Journalism School, received a grant to develop an algorithm to help journalists put new scientific research in the proper context. She also is part of a team that received funding from the Tow Center to use data to chronicle the movement of New York City’s rats.

Columbia also is partnering with five other universities in New York City to support and defend journalism and independent news media, starting with an event in spring on media innovation and entrepreneurship that will bring together graduate students in journalism, design, engineering and technology. Each of the participating schools will have workshops and a lecture series featuring leaders in the media and technology industries. The abundance of news today doesn’t mean people are better informed, said Albright.

Rather, it can create echo chambers as people read only stories they agree with and may be used to circulate propaganda. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, whose business model depends on advertising revenue, disrupt the direct link between news organizations and their audience. “What it’s done is turn news into a commodity to capture people’s personal data,” he said. “In many cases stories are written specifically to make people angry, to cause a reaction and get people to come to that site.

“It’s important to communicate the value of the core tents of journalism, why trusted sources are good and why human critical thinking is good,” Albright said. “A lot of the things that are going to reach us will be determined by things that aren’t human.”