How Metrics and Algorithms Are Changing Journalism
An interview with Brooke Myler, and Dr Silvia Montaña – Niño from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society.
Brooke: Welcome to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision- Making and Society podcast, my name is Brooke Myler and today we are discussing the evolution of digital journalism. Joining me in this episode is Dr Silvia Montaña-Niño from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision- Making and Society (ADMS).
Silvia is a postdoctoral research fellow for the centre and specialises in the influence of metrics and algorithms in journalistic newsgathering, production and distribution. Her research is focused on these influences in the news and media. She also studies the evolution of digital journalism and the interdependencies between social media platforms and news outlets.
Intro: The introduction of technology changed the performance of many work forces; however, it transformed the news and media industry. Now, with the rise of highly developed technology systems, the news and media industry has recently faced many changes while, gathering, producing or distributing news. One notable change is the use of automated-decision making technologies and the influence of metrics and algorithms across news functions.
Instead of producing captivating news stories that relate to major events in the city, journalists are under increasing pressure to adhere to algorithmic demands. Now more than ever they need to engage online audiences to capture likes and shares on social media platforms. Due to this shift in focus, has ‘share worthiness’ become more important than ‘newsworthiness’? Two factors that are critical in the news and media industry. So how is this affecting what we know of journalism? And how is this affecting the news that is generated, and the news that we receive?
Brooke: Welcome to the Podcast Silvia and thank you for joining us today.
Silvia: Thank you Brooke, and it’s a pleasure to be here today.
Brooke: Can you share with us a bit of your background?
Silvia: Yes, I have a journalism background. I studied journalism and I worked for many years in newspapers and magazines for international, local and arts news. After some time, I started teaching journalism at universities and I switched to an academic career and I started researching the evolution of journalism in the digital age.
Brooke: And what drew you to research in this area?
Silvia: Well before I started my PHD when I was teaching in summer schools of communication and journalism in Colombia, many former students used to visit me and tell me about their careers and many of them started talking about how newsrooms were so different. So, they had this screen with metrics about the most read articles in digital operations and there were discussions with editors about these figures and how many users read the article, for how long the user read their news and all these new routines and problems were totally different. And the words that this generation of journalists use the most, were metrics and algorithms.
Brooke: So, Silvia, firstly what are algorithms and metrics?
Silvia: So, there are many definitions for an algorithm. Mathematical and computational, the simplest definition is that an algorithm is a list of instructions in a coded language to make a machine to complete task, to solve a problem. There are more complex definitions of algorithms nowadays because this task integrates data sets, such as the algorithms used in search engines to find the information you are looking for, or those that suggest new content on YouTube or Spotify. On the other hand, metrics is the use of data to measure the impact of an activity. And this is commonly used in social media analytics, for example, organisations use metrics to understand how consumers, clients, viewers or users, make their purchasing decisions and to determine which part of that process, and the organisation can increase their chances of being selected as their brand of choice.
Brooke: So, what do newsrooms use metrics and algorithms for?
Silvia: Newsrooms are using algorithms for many tasks in the workflow, for example, journalists most commonly use algorithms in the newsroom to follow readers’ habits, recommended news to write large volumes of information on sport and finance topics.
Journalists also use algorithms for investigative purposes such as to find patterns in data sets for investigative stories. Additionally, they use social media trend algorithms, to follow popular topics and conversations that cause social media to trace newsworthy content. And metrification is part of the recommendation algorithms, different metrics from home pages and social media platforms are used to understand audience preferences and behaviors, and in that way, serve the informational needs and meet the digital advertising demands and commercial targets.
Brooke: How do journalists then use these metrics?
Silvia: Journalists use metrics in many ways and here it’s essential to distinguish between two metrics regimes that have become standardised in the journalism industry. Social media metrics that belong to the platform’s realm, and those that belong to the webpage regimes, which evolve from traditional rating systems in printing and broadcasting media. And today the metrification systems are mixed and help journalists to understand different forms of interests from audiences on various issues. Many journalists pay more attention to social media metrics, while others care more about metrics that capture readers behaviors on webpages, and as a result of these predominate metrics regimes, they shape journalist’s newsworthiness notions, beyond the conventional. Metrics have become a double end sword because they can make some issues more visible than others and make interests’ ephemeral as trends just rapidly. Just as these technological tools help, they can also skew editorial criteria on topics and people in our society that aren’t present on platforms.
Brooke: Journalism is one of those industries that constantly changes, so how has metrification changed journalism in the past 5 to 10 years?
Silvia: It has changed a lot. An evolving quantification ethos is unfolding and deepening. Metrification has changed ‘journalists’ ideas about what news is and ‘outlets’ audience perceptions with more fine-grained information about their behaviours. It also altered how journalists perceive themselves as professionals. For example, nearly all journalists have their social media accounts. So, they know how many people follow them, like their posts, share their content or even challenge their professional activity. These vanity metrics create personal audiences and serve journalists to self-promote their content out of a news organisation’s institutional frames. Simultaneously, the social media metrification system has created new intermediaries of information: influencers, experts or even trolls and bots, which means that journalists and organisations must compete to maintain their informational authority.
Brooke: Has newsworthiness changed because of this?
Silvia: Yes, it has. Metrics, mainly social media metrics, have amplified other newsworthiness attributes that were more characteristic of the tabloid press. Sensationalist headlines to appeal and surprise to audiences and the focus on the human-interest stories eliciting strong emotional narratives were part of the history of the journalism industry’s understanding of what was news. And this idea of ‘newsworthiness’ is expanded because big tech companies and their metrics equate this ‘popular content’ and variety as newsworthy content for their algorithmic purposes and revenue interests. But in recent years, many media have found ways to work with journalists to find a middle ground according to the newsroom cultures and brands and refine their practices to address diverse audiences and serve their informational preferences.
Brooke: Would you be able to describe newsworthiness versus share worthiness?
Silvia: They are both intertwined phenomena. The share worthiness is a digital attribute characteristic of the eruption of platforms in the media ecosystem and part of the newsworthiness. It means that every element in the news is ”packaged’, so to speak, to produce attention to the intended audiences and facilitates its shareability according to these engagement regimes and publics. And news media have to adapt to digital platforms’ impositions and changes as the new scopes of distribution.
Brooke: How has this changed the way that news is written?
Silvia: There is more attention to readers and observation of their preferences via metrics follow-ups, so crafting news with keywords, key visual content, and specific headlines is very common. So most of the information must be authored or by-lined, and in this way, journalists are reachable to readers and viewers. Current affairs’ journalists struggle with gaining this attention to their readers, which may lead them to make more controversial angles to capture audience attention.
Brooke: The term identity news has been circling the media, what does this term mean?
Silvia: Well, the idea of identity news defines what happens when journalists and audience editors, sit and write and produce stories. In addition to any routine process in newsgathering, the distribution platform values are incorporated in the storytelling craft. There is a complete awareness of the intersection between production and distribution by considering audience data on those different platforms and homepages, for example, demographics or their variables such as interests, tastes, social relations, and emotional connections with given social issues. Also, journalists are more prone to narrate news from their identity traits and experiences, and this is done openly. Identity is a problematic concept in a world of data because data aren’t accurate and they can be biased. Identities are mostly inferred and considered immutable, so they are commodified according to different interests.
Brooke: How can journalists balance the notions of public interest with users’ current practices and demands in social media platforms?
Silvia: Well, it is more about a decision coming from newsroom leaders and strategies than from only journalists. These depend on the different mandates or nature of the organisation. So many public service media have effectively enhanced public interest news and journalists have increased the appeal of public affairs news through packaging. As I mentioned before, the use of format mixtures, creative storytelling, appealing to emotions and identifying groups of interest without damaging the brand. So, they have found ways to serve loyal audiences with these strategies. And, commercial news outlets, traditional and emergent, might be more user-centric and satisfy their audience appetites halfway through the clickbaiting and public interest content.
Brooke: So, Silvia, what can we expect for the future of journalism?
Silvia: Future journalists need to be prepared for the contingencies produced by social changes of course, media innovations pointing to their own professional identity in social media environments, the role of online identities of social media audiences and also training in skills in preparations for the rise of automated technologies.
Brooke: So, why do we need to do this further research?
Silvia: Many newsrooms are rapidly changing their workflows because of many factors. For example, the pandemic, the unemployment crisis and outlets’ redundancies in newsrooms, and the rise of automated technologies. Newsrooms in many parts of the world have increased their use of algorithms to support the process of making editorial and distributions decisions. These processes will inevitably bring more discussions about the role of humans and machines in journalism.
Brooke: So, Silvia are you going to be doing any further research on this topic?
Silvia: Yes, I will undertake research with news and media workers at established and emerging outlets to understand the role of automation, algorithms, and data-driven approaches in personal professional practice, training, also strategic and institutional approaches to these emerging tools and technologies.
Brooke: Silvia, thank you for your insight on metrics and algorithms in the news and media. It’s interesting to see how much they are shaping the industry and how quickly journalists are needing to adapt. Thank you for talking to me today.
Silvia: Thanks for having me.
Brooke: It sounds like metrics and algorithms have more of an impact on journalism as most people may have thought, it’s actually quite surprising to hear that even our news and journalists are being so strongly influenced by metrics and algorithms.
Thank you both Silvia and Heather for providing your insights. I’m sure everyone has learnt more about the industry.
End: You’ve been listening to a podcast from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. For more information on the Centre go to www.admscentre.org.au