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News algorithms exist – and that’s good

Matt Waite, journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

By Matt Waite

Like most salty journalists, I almost reflexively blurt out a four-letter flourish and a snarl every time I hear some publisher trot out the line “do more with less” after they’ve just laid off a giant swath of the staff. I’ll let you guess the words I use — momma raised me better than to use them here. But I was born into a newsroom, and that kind of thinking is tough to shake.

Since I took a turn away from journalism toward programming and Web development five years ago, I’ve started viewing the world very, very differently. And, when confronted with “do more with less,” a computer scientist has a very different reaction. Generally, it’s a problem that can be solved with time, effort and creativity.

So what is the computer science reaction to doing more with less in the newsroom?

One answer coming up more and more lately? Robots.

No, really.

My two research areas right now? UAVs and sensor networks.

But I’m not alone. Need a little tent revival? Watch the Los Angeles Times’ Ben Welsh at the International Symposium on Online Journalism this past weekend. Something a touch more calm? Derek Willis, of the The New York Times, posits a new breed called the programmer-reporter.

“Wait, wait, wait,” a portion of you are saying right now. “Are you talking about using technology to replace people? Have you gone mad? Don’t people get paid to do those jobs?”

Yes. And no. I’ll explain.

The robots are already here. But they won't be replacing journalists any time soon.

At a recent conference at Google called TechRaking, technologists and investigative journalists got together to talk about how they could do what they do together for the benefit of everyone. I couldn’t be there, unfortunately, so I had to follow it on Twitter. Someone, I don’t know who, said “there is no algorithm for journalism” and off it went on a ride through the journalism twittersphere.

It’s a nice thought. Comforting to journalists. It’s also demonstrably false. There are companies that are right now making money with software that writes stories from data. Baseball games? Earnings reports? No problem. A machine can crank those out in less than a minute. A person did those before. We called it journalism. Thus, obviously, there is an algorithm for journalism. There are probably many.

You know what there isn’t an algorithm for? Humanity.

What makes great journalism? Humanity. Great journalism, I believe, reflects us as human beings: flawed, complicated, emotional. It is precisely the things that can’t be defined in a programming language that makes us human.

So what are we doing with robots? I would argue, if we’re doing it right, we are extending our humanity. We are freeing ourselves to be human and to use our humanity to do great things. We are freeing ourselves from things that computers can do faster and easier. We’re using the bot as a tool to add to what we need to tell stories, something we humans have been doing since we were painting on cave walls.

In other words, we are making it possible to do more human things with less.

But is it just “more?” Is “more” the highest and best use of this?

Not if you ask Derek Willis. He argues that we’re actually allowing ourselves to do better with less.

“More may be impressive, but better is always better,” he said.

Boring repetitive tasks? Searching giant amounts of data? Analyzing tens of thousands of things to find when something changes or when something isn’t right? Computers were made to do these things. Crawling the Web looking for things? Gathering data about a thing and recording it? Going places we can’t go to bring back a greater understanding? All things technology is making possible for us.

So why won’t bots replace us? Try this exercise: Define, in specific, repeatable, logical ways, the following:

  • hypocrisy
  • greed
  • outrage
  • impact
  • relevance

These words, for which there is no algorithm, are a pretty damned good set of ingredients for an investigative story. A bot will struggle — and I believe will always struggle — with questions like these.

But you and I, because of our humanity, recognize it when we see it.

This is why we shouldn’t fear the bot. We should embrace them. Bots are letting us be more human.

Matt Waite, a member of the Reporters’ Lab advisory committee, is a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he founded the Drone Journalism Lab. He also co-founded Hot Type Consulting and is the principal developer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com. Follow him on Twitter as @mattwaite.

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