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Investigating the Algorithms

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Investigating the Algorithms

News organizations must do better at explaining how algorithms and big data shape our world.

Key Insight

News organizations must do better at explaining how algorithms and big data shape our world. To hold artificial intelligence-powered systems accountable, reporters will need the technical skills to unpack how algorithms function and explain that process to a non-technical audience.

Why It Matters

With the increased use of data and algorithms powering our everyday lives, new teams are being deployed to investigate algorithms and the companies using them.

Examples

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal both launched teams of reporters with computer science skills last year. The Markup, a startup funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and populated with alumni from ProPublica and other newsrooms, is set to start publishing this year. The Markup aims to explore the societal impacts of big tech and algorithms and plans to release tools to help others investigate how data is being used by third parties.

Last year, the New York Times opinion team launched the Privacy Project, a series that explains how firms amass incredibly precise location data from nearly every smart phone. (The series culminated in December.) That analysis would not have been possible without blending multiple disciplines: processing geospatial information, tracing internet traffic, explaining technical concepts and, of course, developing a source willing to leak an incredibly valuable dataset.

What’s Next

News organizations must train their reporters to broaden their techniques. As technology advances, it is harder for laypeople to understand how systems function—even as those systems become more deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. Understanding where information comes from, how it spreads and the impact it has—not to mention explaining the outcomes of algorithmic decision-making—are central responsibilities for journalists who wish to hold powerful systems accountable.

The Impact

Dedicating resources to investigating algorithms has never been more important than it is right now, as we all seek to gain a better understanding of new technological systems with immense influential power.

Watchlist

Computational Journalism Lab at Northwestern University, The New York Times, The Markup, ProPublica, Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post computational journalism team (led by Jeremy Bowers).