Golden Age of Journalism, Part II – Speed & Accuracy

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Speed

The increased speed in which news organizations gather and publish content is one of the most notable changes and challenges for digital organizations today.

An over-focus on speed without respect for accuracy leads to problems, often quite public problems, for careless news organizations. Our ability to identify information and publish it quickly has sometimes outstripped our collective journalism judgement.

However, there is a reason that the speed-to-publish is a key part of journalism…our focus on speed is the result of an abundance of riches. The sheer amount of observers with social media accounts, cameras and audio devices pointed at every news event happening in the world gives reporters and editors the ability to access, and then rocket content around the world.

And this 24/7 ‘unblinking eye’ has brought us iconic real-time images of news events that we would never have seen before. So, sometimes speed is the point.

I have sat transfixed at my computer watching the Tahrir Square protests unfold in real-time in front of me. We saw Neda Agha-Soltan die before our eyes during the Iranian protests in 2009.  We gaped as we saw survivors from the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 being picked out of the Hudson River as it was happening through Instagram or hundreds of recording cell phones.

The sheer amount of observers with social media accounts, cameras and audio devices pointed at every news event happening in the world gives reporters and editors the ability to access, and then rocket content around the world.

The speed in which journalists and the audience itself have facilitated the publishing of raw content has acted as a powerful witness to important events. Events that only a few years before would have been hidden behind a veil of geography. In this case immediacy and realism – being THERE – is true journalism. The editorial judgement was simply to point the camera and not interpret the events at the time.

But there are downsides to the speed without journalistic curators and editorial judgement.

In the US for the Boston Bombing it was Pete Williams of NBC news who brought a strong journalistic perspective to rapidly evolving events.  And for the Arab Spring, for Twitter audience, it was Andy Carvin at NPR. Both of these journalists, whether doing original reporting or curating actual and supposed eyewitness or exclusive information stopped to ask the all-important question: “Do we have another source?” “Can we corroborate that?”  As Pete Williams described his approach to reporting “the essence of journalism is the process of selection.”

accuracy

Accuracy

Accuracy is not the antithesis of speed.

Editorial judgement connected to digital workflows can work efficiently to produce sensical and accurate news content in near real-time. Like sources and speed, accuracy can be aided by technology, but today we have to reassess our understanding of accuracy in a digital world.

At the core of accuracy is context; what is reliable? What is verifiable? What is the public interest? Which public?  What is the proportionality of one story to another?

And there are new technologies that are still emerging as important tools in developing accurate reporting.

Crowdsourcing

In the digital age, the public is not longer a passive, remote receiver of news–they are a participant. The best news organizations understand this; they don’t view the audience as a competitor, but instead as a collaborator. They may work closely with local bloggers to incorporate their product in their bigger publishing channels. Or, for the sake of improving the news, they reach out to the public directly to work with and aid reporters as they pursue stories in the audience’s interest.

This is exemplified by the experience of the Guardian as they could produce incredibly detailed and accurate information about British MP expenses in 2009. Faced with mountains of paper-filed reports – remember data as a source! – they turned to the audience to help process those thousands and thousands of pages of reports into data that could be analyzed. But beyond that they trusted their audience by asking them to not only digitize elements of the reports, but help identify what was interesting; in essence alerting the reporter to some of the juicy bits they could find from the MP’s expense sheet.  A “hey, this looks really, really bad!”

The success of working with the audience has led to Guardian Witness as a new crowdsource platform for their journalism.  On this platform, the Guardian can create a journalism task and ask for help from the audience in a reporting project.  Audience members might leave opinions, fill out a survey, go identify some data, leave a picture, whatever is needed that one or even a team of reporters could not hope to get.

The role of crowdsourcing in improving the accuracy is starting to grow.  For example ProPublica’s “Free the Files” project to help transcribe US political spending, which in turn led to the release of Transcribable, an open source project that journalists can use to build crowdsourcing projects.  Or OpenWatch where news organizations can task (or find uploaded content from) citizen journalists around the world with coverage of news events, such as the protests in Istanbul or in Egypt. Or even services like Storyful that helps you extend your editorial staff, allowing newsrooms to subscribe to their services of sourcing and verifying social content.

Algorithms

While this is still an emerging field, there are a number of people thinking about how algorithms and computer agents can help us more quickly determine the accuracy of information.  The Washington Post recently launched TruthTeller, an algorithm based process that compares transcripts of video and audio to a database of facts to see if politicians are telling the truth.

Robots

Finally, in the area of accuracy we have to think about the tantalizing potential of drones.  Drones give journalists new abilities to independently verify information, such as the extent of a natural disaster or an ability to monitor demonstrations from a birds-eye view.

When you combine these nimble, independent sensors with high-powered computing video/photo and audio analysis you get something that concerns many, including myself, about the potential of privacy violations. There is potential here for journalists, but we must be very, very careful about how we deploy such a powerful tool.

Accuracy, reliability and the ability to present verified information are key values of news organizations. There are new technologies that are helping us ensure that journalists can identify, vet, classify and ultimately increase the accuracy of our reporting.  We need to use these tools and embed them into our everyday workflows. It is somewhat ironic that at the same moment we have gained tools that have the potential to augment the core ethics of journalism they also undermine them.  And, of course, what is the most important element in the end is the quality of the individual.  A recent quote by Norman Perelstine of Time Inc. highlights this point.  His quote, paraphrased: “Pick the best editor and everything else falls into place.”

The next and last in this series of posts will turn to the people part; the jobs, skills and instincts in the new newsroom.

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robbole

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Rob Bole is the Director of Innovation for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @rbole.

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