Computational Journalism. When journalism meets programming
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Digital data sources and platforms allow journalists to produce news in new and different ways. The shift from an analog to digital workflow introduces computation as a central component of news production. This enables variability for end users, automation of tedious tasks for newsrooms, and allows journalists to tackle analysis of the increasingly large sets of data relevant to citizens. To journalism, computerization is a promising path for news production, particularly for those who are able to wield computers to their specific needs through programming as a journalistic method. Toolmakers and users, both internal in the newsrooms and external in academia and in the IT business, are putting effort into making computational journalism a reality.
While the hypothetical aspects of computational journalism are easy to find, this thesis provides studies of computational efforts in newsrooms as well as experimental prototyped suggestions in order to provide a better understanding of how practices in journalism intersect with computing as information science.
This thesis approaches software-oriented news production as (1) a socially situated practice in newsrooms and (2) a design science research problem. The newsroom approach includes an analysis of news applications; journalistic output that consists of software code as a part of news storytelling. The analysis focuses on what technical and visual elements these applications consists of and how they compare as journalistic products in relation to the core functions of the journalistic social contract. Further, authors of news applications as journalist-programmers are interviewed in order to give an account of how this practice is situated in the newsroom and how these practitioners view their efforts in relation to technical, social, and journalistic considerations. As a design science research problem, I have approached computational journalism as an effort to produce software for journalism by user testing a custom prototype for dealing with analysis of social media messages, and as an effort to produce software as journalism in creating a tool for watchdogging the parliamentary data API, aided by expert parliamentary reporters to discuss how such an endeavor could be formulated and executed.
Results show that advanced technological work is used, both in creating news applications and in an array of other newsroom-internal workflows, to continue traditional journalistic functions and themes, under the premises of digital media logic where software creation can be used to gather, systematize, and analyze material as well as to publish code in digital journalism online. The practitioners that have these skills use them as a journalistic method and underline their positions as journalists not technologists. This view of technological work as journalistic is not universal in journalism, where technical work is often segregated from journalistic work. Creating software for journalism, as exemplified as a tool to aid analysis of user-generated content, requires solid understanding of what journalists do rather that what journalism is intended to do. Finding stories and sources in social media is a matter of negotiating limited resources and the authorship of messages counts heavily in favor of known persons over popular or alternative arguments. The types of stories the prototype was found to best aid were soft and human interest stories, findings in accordance with other studies of journalists’ utilization of user-generated content. Creating software as journalism, taking a more user-centered design approach, created richer insight into how one subgroup of journalists (parliamentary reporters) relate to software in their beat. The possibilities for journalistic reinvention were clearly expressed, as was a stricter boundary between journalistic and technical work, where journalism is a function that transforms facts and data into journalism by adding context, interpretation, and explanations. The particularity of parliamentary reporters’ workflow, that to a large extent depends on oral sources and traditional social networking, is mostly unsuited for computational aid based on the parliaments’ API, but fact-checking and analysis of background information on members of parliament through a software-oriented approach is seen as complimentary and promising rather than threatening to the craft.
While computational journalism emerges from traditions of software-oriented news productions that to a large extent overlap as a merge of computer science and journalism, some distinctive features distinguish and define this field. Both internally in the newsroom and as journalistic output, computational journalism is defined be a shift towards platforms, in creating spaces for finding, discussing and narrating stories. This can include the management of computable models, not merely collected sets of data. As a craft, creating software to solve journalistic problems, computational thinking becomes a key skill that defines both reasonable expectations and limitations, but also collaborations. The difference in technological sophistication between computational journalists as the newsrooms at large is under constant negotiation. Programming journalists strive for higher journalistic capital, while newsrooms adapt by both embracing computational efforts as possibilities for journalistic reinvention and keeping a distance by labeling the work as technical. Journalistic values and values of technology (or reasons for utilizing technology), can contradict each other. The gap that needs to be acknowledged in order to stay accountable in computational news production is above all an understanding of technology as a companion (and antagonist) of agency in news production.