Attacks on independent journalism and threats to news media business models have only been increasing over the past few years, and new technologies have been one of the main causes. Despite this, many journalists still seem to be caught off guard when tech disrupts the way people access news, or worse, when it is used to undermine democracy.
To tackle this problem, six New York universities — Cornell Tech, Columbia University, City University of New York, New York University, The New School and The Pratt Institute — partnered to create a new journalism course that brings together varied disciplines: from design, media and cultural theory, to computer science and engineering, explains Justin Hendrix, executive director at the NYC Media Lab.
The Tech, Media and Democracy course was initiated by himself and Mor Naaman, a computer scientist at Cornell Tech. Over 100 students participated from across the six campuses this year. The course covered four main topics: technology supporting journalism, credibility and misinformation, protecting journalists and media organisations, and monetisation and business models.
Mark Hansen, director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, focused his class on the computational tools and techniques that, while not necessarily new, certainly achieved new prominence in the 2016 US election and beyond. “The vast networks that we rely on for information everyday are simply too large for us to examine in their entirety,” says Hansen.
“To get a sense of "what's on," we take feeds from algorithmic recommender systems, we scan trending topics, we focus on information shared with us by our friends or people we trust. Recently, we have seen how these tools and strategies for directing our attention can be hacked,” he adds.
As a result, his class took up each of these topics and produced a story appearing in the New York Times called "The Follower Factory," a long piece of data journalism that looked at what it means to purchase followers on social media platforms like Twitter.
But data can’t solve everything, according to Mor Naaman. To tackle mistrust in the media and misinformation, for example, his students came up with a simple card game, which is an amazingly non-tech solution.
Another project his students were working on was paying people to read an article. “When you send a link to an article to another person,” explains Naaman, “the system would track the interaction, ask questions in the form of a quiz at the end and then perform the transaction.” Whether that is realistic or not, it shows that journalists need to care both about the content and about how it gets distributed.
Twitter Bump is another tech idea the students came up with. This platform tracks thousands of Trump’s political appointees to the office on Twitter to monitor what these people are talking about and how it relates to the larger policy changes being made. More student ideas and projects can be found here.
Mark Hansen concludes: “In 2011, Twitter’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey said: “What I really love about a well-designed product is that you don’t think about it. It just becomes background.” I would like my students to see through technology’s disappearing act, and be able to imagine the world otherwise — to imagine a better way of doing things.
“In the same interview, Dorsey likens his technology decisions at Twitter with editorial ones. He said, “The product is the story we’re telling the world.” And so in Dorsey’s framing, I’d like to help my students “read a product” and tell a better story. I challenge them to make something new, to become tool builders and not just tool users.”