Computation + Journalism = ?

    by Rich Gordon
    February 17, 2008

    When the Knight News Challenge awarded me (and the Medill School of Journalism) a grant to offer journalism scholarships to computer programmers, I thought teaching journalism to technologists was a pretty novel idea. But it turns out some faculty at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing were thinking along similar lines.

    Last spring, Prof. Irfan Essa and Ph.D. candidate Nick Diakopoulos taught an experimental course, "Computational Journalism," for computer science students at Georgia Tech. The course is being offered again during the current (spring) semester. Through readings and guest lectures, students in the two classes have learned how journalism is practiced and developed ideas about how technology might make it better.


    This week, another interesting development unfolds at Georgia Tech: the first Journalism 3G conference, billed as "A Symposium on Computation + Journalism." The conference is bringing together journalists and computer scientists, students and professionals, to share perspectives on the intersection of journalism and technology. Speakers include Krishna Bharat, principal scientist at Google and creator of Google News; Michael Skoler, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media; and Elizabeth Spiers, media columnist for Fast Company and founding editor of Gawker.com. I’m moderating a panel on "Advances in News Gathering," and Medill’s first two Knight scholarship winners (Brian Boyer and Ryan Mark) will be attending with me.


    It will be very interesting to see where and how journalists and technologists find common ground at the conference. In my career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach technology to working journalists (as an early adopter of computer-assisted reporting techniques in the 1980s and early 1990s) and to journalism students (here at Medill). And I’ve collaborated on a few projects with computer science faculty and students here at Northwestern. But I’ve always found it difficult to bridge the gap between journalists and technologists — for a variety of reasons.

    One key problem is that many journalists just aren’t comfortable with technology. And even if they learn to use technology tools successfully in their work, few want to delve deeply into the process of developing new technology. And most media organizations don’t seem to value their programming staffs or involve them in the journalism process. Instead, their work supports back-end systems like payroll and billing.

    But there’s also clearly a need to educate computer scientists about journalism, which is why what Georgia Tech is doing is so important. When computer scientists think about journalism, it seems they often are most interested in trying to create software that replicates what journalists do — or makes them unnecessary. Think Google News — or the Northwestern InfoLab’s News at Seven, an automated system that generates TV news "shows" by harvesting information from the Web, translating it into human speech and delivering it through avatars.

    Don’t get me wrong — if an algorithm can truly replace what a journalist does, I’m happy to let a computer do the work. But I’m convinced that the most indispensable things that journalists do — reporting, interviewing, analyzing, writing and editing — need to be done by humans. I’m also convinced that most technology professionals just don’t understand how journalists do their jobs, what makes them essential to a democratic society, or how technology is helping destroy the business model that has supported the creation of original journalism. I’d like to see computer science scholars and professionals thinking more deeply about how technology can help journalists do a better job, not just put them out of a job.

    Medill’s scholarships for computer programmers, enabling them to attend our one-year master’s program, are a small effort to bridge the journalism-technology divide. The whole idea of the scholarships is to have the winners "walk a mile in our shoes." They are learning what journalists do — including interviewing, beat reporting and journalistic writing — while also developing an appreciation of journalists’critical role in a democracy.. What they’ll do with their journalism education, I don’t know. But I expect they will come out of Medill’s program thinking differently about journalism and the ways technology can improve it. I hope Georgia Tech’s efforts, including this week’s conference, will have the same effect.

    Tagged: computational journalism computer science education georgia tech j-schools northwestern

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