Computing has influenced many fields in a big way, and journalism is one of them. There’s an ongoing trend away from print media and toward digital, and this is helping to create a new discipline known as computational journalism.
"Computational journalism aims to study both computation and journalism in unison, with the goal of understanding how both have evolved and how in recent times citizens create, consume, share, and comment on news and all related information around them," says Ifran Essa, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Essa teaches a class in computational journalism and is credited with coining the term.
"Journalism aims to provide information with appropriate contextualization for citizens to make decisions about their civic life," Essa says. "Computation and the network it has built and thrives on has not only influenced [how] information is gathered, shared, and distributed, but challenges it at its core."
For example, news gathering or distribution is no longer left to a select few, says Essa. Innovations in computation and the Internet are redefining news itself, transforming it from a top-down, elitist model to more of a grassroots, user-driven model.
"Social networks allow citizens to get really close to a topic, share insights and preferences, and allow for personal dialogue with others in a more open manner," Essa says. "Anyone can now express an opinion, or write an editorial, and engage in a dialogue with others."
"Eventually some watchdog articles will be written by algorithm," says Professor JamesHamilton of Duke University.
Much more data is available to both journalists and readers, Essa adds. "Aggregation of news and information across [the] globe is now possible, but now we need to go beyond aggregation to sense making, so both journalists and citizens [can] work on finding relevant and higher-quality information."
Computational tools now exist and better ones are on the way to analyze content. "Sophisticated computational algorithms continue to be developed that analyze information and provide news tailored to individuals’ interests in real time," Essa says. "Computational journalism is not just a new medium for sharing information, but at it core aims to study the workflow of how news in gathered, shared, and distributed."
James Hamilton, director of the DeWill Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University, views computational journalism "as the combination of data, algorithms, and knowledge from social science to yield information that can supplement and, in the future, substitute for part of journalism's watchdog function. By supplement, I mean that analyses like text mining and cluster analyses can generate electronic tips that lower the cost to reporters of deciding what and where to investigate. By substitute, I mean that eventually some watchdog articles will be written by algorithm in a way that would allow readers to see a customized, personalized article about how a policy problem is playing out in their neighborhood, block, or lives."
Hamilton says the development of the field will entail drawing together researchers to tackle questions involving computer science (for example, algorithms for data mining, database architecture, visualization, and text mining); social sciences, communications, and law.
Early examples of computational journalism include sites such as Google News, which aggregates news from a variety of sources and then personalizes it, and EveryBlock, whose tagline is "A news feed for your block." The EveryBlock news site allows people to track happenings within their own Zip Code.
"Locality within news information has taken a new form with efforts like EveryBlock, where a resident of a specific block in a city can collect information from a variety of sources about their residential neighborhood," Essa says.
Experts say these latest trends in digital media do not marginalize or destroy print media. "Computation journalism in not about getting rid of the print medium, but enhancing it," Essa says.
Bob Violino is a writer based in Massapequa Park, NY, who covers business and technology.
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