Collaborating with algorithms

In the current world of new media, algorithms have taken a prominent place. For example, both
Facebook and Twitter use an algorithm that filters information based on certain criteria such as a
user’s previous behaviour on the site. On Thursday morning, the 6th of April, an international
panel of four journalists and one researcher came together in the Sala delle Colonne of Palazzo
Graziani to talk about algorithms and new media. Some topics that they covered include the
integration of new media and algorithms in their newsrooms, the responsibility of social media by
being a news provider and the collaboration between newsrooms and social media platforms.
Firstly, Martin Belam, social and new formats editor at The Guardian, told us a bit more about how
the Guardian uses new media in its daily reporting. It mostly makes use of chatbots, in which the
audience can interact with the newspaper. He gives the example of three kinds of chatbots that the
Guardian has used over the previous years: a recipe suggestion chatbot, a morning brief bot (which
gave people top stories for the day on their phones) and a bot in which people could ask questions
about the Brexit.
Secondly, Jacqui Maher from Condé Nast International, stated that their magazines asked themselves
what they could do to get their audiences a more tailored view of important fashion events. They
decided to let people follow their favourite designer via a Facebook messenger bot during the most
important fashion events of the year.
Thirdly, Christina Elmer, Head of data journalism of Spiegel Online, gave an example of how the
website automates football coverage by using official data from the Bundesliga, which results in one
article every Monday. Apart from that, the team also developed football graphics based on these
data and an interface for the sports part of the website.
Responsibility
As Google and Facebook use these algorithms to filter both information and news, news
organisations are confronting an interesting dilemma: expecting the platforms themselves to
diversify their news or taking charge and using Search Engine Optimization to fight for their
dominant place in the news arena?
Belam sees these algorithms as a “quality check”: if people like and interact with the content on
Facebook, the journalists can be sure it is good. He does, however, add that this might be a naïve
editorial approach. The most shared story about the Brexit referendum for example, was one about
dismantling the British National Health Service published by the Daily Express. Although it was the
most shared article, the Daily Express is not the most influential newspaper and the topic was
definitely not the most important topic concerning the Brexit.
Nicholas Diakopoulos, researcher at the University of Maryland confirms this. He states that content
itself is just one deciding factor which determines the audience for an article. The latter is not
necessarily inherent to what the article is about: maybe it just passed Google’s algorithm more easily.
Whether an article is popular, depends on much more factors than just the content.
Collaboration newsrooms-platforms
Belam from the Guardian indicates that the collaboration between newsrooms and platforms have
both benefits as well as disadvantages. On the one side, companies such as Facebook come to the
newsroom and show you how you can make the platform work for you. On the other side, the
features of the platform might change a lot, which is typical for a social media platform. This, however, might also have its consequences for the application that the newsroom is working with
and which may not always be compatible.

Charlotte Teunis

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