How can we use the Internet to save the world?
That’s exactly what Dan Schultz, a Knight-Mozilla fellow at The Boston Globe, explored during his presentation on “Hacking Journalism” on Wednesday, February 6 as part of the Digital Edge Journalism seminar series at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. The event was hosted by Dan Pacheco, Chair and Professor of Journalism Innovation at Newhouse.
As a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University‘s information systems program and a former research assistant at the MIT Media Lab, Schultz has become well-versed in the convergence of technology and journalism over the years. He began as a programmer, and used the hacking principles of “building and changing systems” incorporating people, process, and technology as the foundation for his work in civic media.
The Internet Will _____ the World
Schultz asked the audience to fill in that blank, and received a variety of answers. While he admitted that his answer changes on any given day, he filled it with “destroy.” Sound a bit pessimistic? Maybe, but Schultz raised excellent points about why the Internet can be harmful if we don’t properly harness its power.
Schultz explained that “we’re getting an algorithmically-determined narrow view of the world,” as we’re exposed to recommended links and videos based on our interests. He argued that when we consume information, we’re struggling to protect our identity, so we often take comfort in reading news that we agree with.
But is this making us less informed? Perhaps. If we consistently turn to the same news sources, it’s likely that we’re missing out on other perspectives. And if our chosen sources lack credibility, our narrow news consumption could be doing more harm than good.
In the past, newspapers have largely functioned as a tool to create well-informed communities. While newspapers are certainly no longer on the rise, Schultz stressed that their function–ensuring that well-informed communities exists in society–must still be executed.
Creating Technology that Informs
During his time at the MIT Media Lab, Schultz was involved in two research groups: Information Ecology and the Center for Civic Media. It was during this time that he became immersed in his interests in both technology and journalism, and developing connections between the two fields.
One of Schultz’s biggest projects is Truth Goggles, a tool designed to help people think more carefully about the news they read. As Schultz puts it, it encourages people to “help the world hold information to their standards.”
The Truth Goggles software is a browser plug-in that highlights text in a news article and identifies fact-checked content from sources like PolitiFact. Schultz referred to it as an “added credibility layer,” though he is still struggling to determine what should serve as the fact database for the software and how it can be scaled up, how to combat the issue of paraphrased content, and how to build accuracy and trust of in an automated system.
Schultz recognized that it’s difficult to present people with information that goes against their worldview, harkening back to the idea of protecting their personal identity as they seek out the news. It’s important to toe the line between presenting credible information while not completely turning off the consumer from alternate perspectives.
Bringing Technology into the Newsroom
One of the most important pieces of advice Schultz shared was for those interested in technology and civic media to “get good at effective troublemaking.” Create things that point out problems and opportunities, and make the organization even better. By identifying problems and giving a team the chance to work together on a solution, there’s a far greater chance for productivity.
Schultz said that as more and more technology and tech-savvy individuals are being brought into newsrooms, the ability to connect with consumers and tell stories more effectively is greatly improved. Data visualization and interactive storytelling are on the rise at major news organizations, and they allow for an enhanced, more engaging experience for readers who voraciously consume the news every day.
But how do we attract more programmers to newsrooms? “Birds of a feather flock together,” Schultz said. “Once you have developers in newsrooms, journalism, and startups, I can only imagine it will attract more people.” He added that Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, among other organizations, is a leader in building a network of developer-journalists and embedding them in top newsrooms worldwide.
Accordingly to Schultz, there is an open-mindedness toward innovative journalism, which will hopefully lead to news organizations and readers alike embracing new tools and ideas for improving credibility and accuracy of reporting.
Follow Dan Schultz (@slifty) on Twitter to learn more about his other major projects (NewsJack and Opened Captions) and work at The Boston Globe, or visit his website. Share your thoughts on the rise of technology in journalism in the comments section below.