In her speech at the Reuters Memorial Lecture 2014 for the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford this month, Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism Law School (she also led the digital transition of The Guardian), discussed the dangers to free press caused by the inordinate power of Silicon Valley’s social platforms and search engines.
In her speech, Bell called for journalism (“including journalistic institutions like Reuters, the Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times, NPR, and new types of news organizations such as Buzzfeed, Wikileaks, Global Voices or whatever comes next”) to be an equal partner to technology (specifically, “the large social platforms created in Silicon Valley” like “Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, Ello, Medium, Kickstarter, and others”).
The Power Shift
Bell explained to the audience that, “We have reached a point of transition where news spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley. Professional journalism is augmented by untold numbers of citizen journalists who break news, add context, and report through social platforms. News companies make it hard to publish; social media platforms make it easy to publish.”
The Algorithm Problem
However, Bell notes that the problems are partially rooted in how technology algorithms deliver news to audiences. She said, “The ‘two cultures’ of engineering and journalism are very different. They do not share the same motivations, they have not shared the same skills, they do not seek the same outcomes, and they certainly do not share the same growth and revenue models. Yet now they occupy the same space in terms of conveying news and discussion to a broad public. Journalism’s future is inextricably linked to and increasingly dependent on communication technologies.”
The Editorial Lack of Accountability
While social media platforms claim they have no intention of making editorial decisions, they do so every second of every day through their algorithms with Twitter being the only exception that stands out to Bell currently.
She explains, “Every algorithm contains editorial decisions, every piece of software design carries social implications. The language of news is shaped now by engineering protocols, not by newsroom norms, and on the whole, the world is a better place for it. If there is a free press, journalists are no longer in charge of it. Engineers who rarely think about journalism or cultural impact or democratic responsibility are making decisions every day that shape how news is created and disseminated. Every time an algorithm is tweaked, an editorial decision is made.”
Bell isn’t suggesting that technological progress stop. Instead, she offered three suggestions for the journalism industry to become equal partners with technology:
- Tools: Build tools and services that put software in the hands of journalism rather than technology companies. “We need a platform for journalism built with the values and requirements of a free press baked into it,” said Bell.
- Regulation: Pursue regulation related to copyright, monopoly, utility status, and opacity.
- Reporting: Increase reporting on technology as a human rights issue, and add new beats such as data, privacy, and algorithmic accountability.
You can read Bell’s full speech here. It’s a great read filled with insights that will make you stop and think about the future of journalism, content, and the marriage of journalism and technology.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.