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The Future of Democracy: Public opinion and media research in the digital age
June 10th, 2021| 1PM ET

From measuring American news consumption and media attitudes broadly, to analyzing coverage of newly-inaugurated presidents, Pew Research Center examines critical trends at the intersection of journalism and politics. What do recent Pew Research Center studies on journalism and media tell us about the state of democracy in the U.S.? How has studying the media industry changed in the digital age?

On Episode 42 of “The Future of Democracy,” we’ll explore recent Pew Research Center work and how media research can be used to better understand our country’s most pressing issues.

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INN Days 2021: Accelerating the future of nonprofit news

June 9-10th, 2021

INN Days brings together journalists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to help shape the future of public service journalism. This year’s conference features an inspiring line-up of speakers across the news industry, including newsroom leaders and media researchers.

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Local News Ideas to Action Series: Centering Audiences for Accountability and Government Reporting

June 17th, 2021| 1PM ET

The American Press Institute is excited to launch the Local News Ideas-to-Action Series, an effort to support innovation in local reporting. In this first series, we'll focus on the role(s) for audiences and communities in local government and accountability reporting. Through discussion, peer feedback and small project funds, we'll help newsrooms consider why and how journalists prioritize audience information needs through community engagement and service-oriented reporting and how to deepen relationships with your community to ensure your accountability and governance reporting has impact and remains salient and sustainable.

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Covering COVID-19 with Automated News: Challenges and lessons learned from computational journalism across the globe

By Samuel Danzon-Chambaud 

For all the news organizations that have adopted automated journalism over the last decade or so, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a near-perfect opportunity to automate an unprecedented global news story. As the virus spread across the world at the beginning of 2020, governments and health authorities made a considerable amount of open source data available to the public, such as the number of deaths, patients in intensive care units, and 7-day incidence rates. This type of structured data that can fit into predictable story frames lays the groundwork for a new journalistic development known as “automated journalism,” a computer process that creates automated pieces of news without any human intervention except for the initial programming. Yet only a handful of organizations utilized the technology to cover the spread and consequences of the virus. 

Automated journalism usually implies the use of algorithms that fetch information on external or internal datasets and then fill in the blanks left on templates that have been pre-written in advance. This process, which can be compared to the word game Mad Libs, constitutes a basic application of Natural Language Generation (NLG), a computer technique that has been around for several decades in domains such as weather forecasts, sports, or financial results. From the beginning, the story of COVID-19 lent itself to the use of automated reporting to provide accessible and (in some cases) up-to-the-minute information on the pandemic.

NLG made a leap into journalism and was more widely discussed in the first half of the 2010s as The Los Angeles Times used automated text to report on  homicides and earthquake alerts, while The Associated Press partnered with the firm Automated Insights to automate corporate earning stories. A growing number of media organizations have adopted or experimented with automated journalism since major news organizations like Radio France, The Washington Post, and the BBC started doing so. Typically, the automation technology is either developed in-house, outsourced to an external content provider, or used as a third-party solution so that journalists can design their own automated news “templates.” Automated news can be published all at once on a massive scale or used as first drafts to assist journalists with their own writing. 

Only a select few media organizations were able to leverage this technology in time to cover the pandemic over the past year. In a forthcoming report to be published with the Tow Center, I conducted research that centered around nine in-depth, semi-structured interviews with media practitioners and executives between July and December 2020. The report will document the experiences of newsrooms’ and media organizations’ use of automated news for reporting on COVID-19 across the world. These interviews surfaced the importance of media and news professionals being able to problem solve through computational thinking and journalism. The interviews and research also unveiled a series of ad hoc solutions that may address the challenges of relying on external datasets when attempting to automate storytelling. Despite some of the documented issues interviewees reported, these technologies have given journalists a considerable edge in deploying automated news quickly and efficiently. They may also fuel ideas for the next iteration of automated news and media products.


Key Findings

  • Nine news organizations were interviewed for this report:

    • Bayerisch Rundfunk (Germany, Bavaria’s public service broadcaster)

    • Bloomberg News (United States, news agency)

    • Canadian Press (Canada, news agency)

    • Helsingin Sanomat (Finland, newspaper)

    • NTB (Norway, news agency)

    • Omni (Sweden, news service)

    • RADAR (United Kingdom, news agency)

    • Tamedia (Switzerland, media group)

    • The Times (United Kingdom, newspaper)

  • Seven organizations had previously used automated news for other types of coverage, while two experimented with it for the first time.

    • The Times, for example, used automated graphics in the past, but adding automated text generation was a first. “It was really the first time where we felt the need for such a long-term investment in something that was automated,” explained a data and interactive journalist at the newspaper.



Source: The Times

  • Most organizations developed their automated news systems in-house, using open-source and proprietary solutions. In two cases, organizations used third-party platforms to help journalists design their own automated stories. In one case, the production of automated news was outsourced to an external content provider. 

    • For instance, NTB delivered automated news on COVID-19 directly through its wire service and also through an API that news organizations could use to set up their own interactive products such as live blogging platforms (smaller clients could also use NTB’s own platform for this purpose).

  • The nine media organizations surveyed used automated news on COVID-19 either to provide a statistical overview of the spread of the disease through user-facing interfaces and new media products, or resorted to new forms of newsroom workflows structured around the use of this technology.

    • In the case of Bloomberg News, automated news was intertwined with an AI-powered system that analyzes relevant information through “knowledge graphs.” These graphs help the newsroom prepare for different scenarios in which automated news would be useful for storytelling. Although this workflow pipeline involves machine learning elements, writing scripts in advance to prepare for each of these scenarios remains largely a human effort.

  • The challenges that newsrooms faced when using automated news to cover COVID-19 demonstrate the difficulties associated with having to rely on external datasets. These included: 

    • Getting data from multiple levels of government. 

      • The project lead at Tamedia pointed out that at the beginning of the outbreak, they needed to choose between data released by some of the Swiss cantons, which, in some cases, compatibilized deaths in elderly care that were likely to be caused by COVID-19, and data from the Federal Office of Public Health, which only focused on laboratory-confirmed deaths. 

    • Erroneous or unreliable data and sudden changes of format. 

      • In Finland, reported data was released as a structured API in the morning, but then as an HTML table in the afternoon, according to HS.

    • Releasing data either too soon or too late. 

      • One news organization was able to get ahold of the latest COVID-19 numbers before any official government announcement by connecting to an API service set up by governments and health authorities, effectively beating the authorities to their own news.

      • But some media organizations reported a lag in releasing data on the pandemic, resulting in those numbers accumulating over a few days before being published all at once with more up-to-date data.

  • To remedy these challenges, media practitioners with a strong computing background have come up with ad hoc solutions developed to work around these issues, such as:

    • Using a shared spreadsheet to work across teams.

    • Setting up an alert system to work with tight deadlines and sudden changes of format.

    • Keeping historical records to make calculations and improve accountability.

  • The process of developing these ad hoc solutions demonstrates the importance of problem solving through computing skills in news organizations. This type of mindset has given journalists an edge in deploying automated news quickly and efficiently. Passing the test of covering a global pandemic with the help of automated news indicates that these products can be continually developed for use in the future. 

Based on this report’s findings, the next iteration of automated news products could include features like a shared spreadsheet to split up work across teams, an alert system to check whether new data has been released and a cloud storage service to keep track of historical data.

The author received research funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant program No. 765140.

The full version of this Tow Center report is set to be released later this summer. 

  • The National Trust for Local News, led up by Tow associate research scholar Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, was featured in a Poynter article last month outlining best practices for publishing a digital news site.  The piece warns of the potential “pitfalls” of entering the “surge” of local news digital startups. Some “pain points” published in the article include founders of news sites reporting they had to contribute personal money to get the sites started, and the overconcentration of digital news startups in communities that may not need them (indicating that the desertification of local news isn’t limited to print). The National Trust, however, was listed as a potential solution to the tenuous nature of digital media startups. Its model as a public benefit corporation allows it to operate as a local news-focused “hybrid that maximized profit and prioritizes a given mission.” For added context: Last month, The Tow Center published a Q&A with Hansen Shapiro and Colorado Sun managing editor, Larry Ryckman (who’s part of a new coalition in Colorado to preserve local news through the Trust) on the lead up to and future plans for the Trust’s first foray into public, local news ownership. 

  • An op-ed by Victor Pickard, the co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Media, Inequality & Change Center, asks the federal government to “Strengthen our democracy by funding public media.” Based on new research on public media funding in democratic nations worldwide, Pickard and co-author Timothy Neff, a postdoctoral fellow at the MIC Center, argue in a piece for CJR that the US’ comparatively low investment in local media is a glaring example of a “structural journalism crisis.” Their solution? A holistic model for funding that includes the cooperation of nonprofit and public media outlets, federal funding, and a change in collective mindset toward “establish[ing] media as a public good.” Similarly, a FiveThirtyEight article by Joshua Darr last week writes that “in the absence of local news, people are more likely to vote for one party up and down the ballot.” Ongoing research by the Tow Center studies the impact and scope of the decimation of both local news and jobs in the field.  

Copyright © 2021 Tow Center for Digital Journalism, All rights reserved.

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