SXSW: Automation, engendering trust and the future of news

Insights

Storybench flew all the way to Austin, Texas to attend South by Southwest, the world-renowned tech-and-innovation conference. Reporters Rachel Grozanick and Felippe Rodrigues, both students in Northeastern’s Media Innovation program, spent a week on the ground following creatives and what they are doing to innovate with news video, virtual reality, algorithmic home pages, and interactive data analysis.

Below, some more takeaways on the future of news from the conference.

Automated journalism can be meaningful

When talking about automation in news, the first thing that might come to mind is the Associated Press’s machine-written minor league baseball coverage. But many newsrooms have been acquiring technology to make automated newswriting a possibility. The Norwegian News Agency, for example, has been covering every professional soccer game played in the country using automation, according to the agency’s head of innovation Helen Vogt. Still, Vogt warns of the limitations of automation. The end product is only as strong as the data being inputted. “It is all about the accuracy of the data,” said Vogt.

Joe Procopio, – CIO at Automated Insights, the company responsible for developing Wordsmith, which helps the AP’s automation efforts – believes that automated content should be leveraged by every newsroom.

“Automation creates content that wouldn’t be created otherwise and provides coverage that wouldn’t be financially viable,” he said. The company has been working on various new products, including automated sports commentary.

The most staffed newsrooms in the country have also embraced machine-produced content in the belief that this frees up journalists to report on other matters. The New York Times and Washington Post’s election night coverage had many elements of automation, in fact. Tapping into data feeds of election results allowed them to publish stories on the race that might not have been covered otherwise.

“Our national desk wasn’t sending people to cover thousands of races. That’s where we saw opportunity and started looking into the data we would receive,” explained The Times’ graphics editor Wilson Andrews.

How news media can regain the public’s trust

Eli Pariser, co-founder of the news site Upworthy, coined the concept of “filter bubbles” years ago. Today, his mission is to burst them.

In an in-depth analysis at SXSW of how the media can improve itself, Pariser identified the problem in today’s world as frustratingly simple: “The truth isn’t loud enough.” That’s because the social media era has provoked a shift in how humans relate to and trust each other.

“Journalists still believe in a code of procedures—reporting, fact-checking, sources—but we are shifting to a more humane system of trusting information. We now trust what or who we know,” Pariser said.

He also brought up solutions for how media organizations could build trust with audiences, including being clear about the beliefs of an organization, like the Voice of San Diego has done or by telling stories that try to change preconceived ideas—schemas, as Pariser puts it—like the Julio Diaz story above attempts to do.

“You have to engender trust and then provide facts. Facts alone do not engender trust,” Pariser says. Instead, he said, to fix fake news, journalists must target the people who consume it.

How Countable and the Texas Tribune are making news actionable

What if you could read an article about a bill that was up for vote, form an informed opinion that you wanted to share with your representative or congressperson and then, right from the article, click a button that would connect you directly to your congressperson or representative allowing you to leave a voicemail or video message telling him or her how you feel?

Andrea Seabrook, managing editor for Countable, says with her website, you can do exactly that. The goal is to get people reading news that they can actually take action on, and enable them to take that action.

Andrea Seabrook and Corrie MacLaggan at SXSW 2017, in Austin, Texas Credit: Rachel Grozanick.

But what if you aren’t quite sure how, exactly, the government works? Or you want to know more about a specific topic that you see affecting your life, like the public school system, but don’t know who to ask?

The Texas Tribune also understands that reality and is trying to help.

“We do more than 50 events a year,” said Corrie MacLaggan, managing editor at the Tribune. “Most of them are free, open to the public, live-streamed for those who can’t be there. We consider this accountability journalism.”

“We’re a Republican state,” she continued. “We don’t have a lot of competitive elections. If you’re a voter anywhere in Texas you might not necessarily have a chance to interact with your lawmaker. So we put elective officials in a room with the public, we ask them questions on a stage and then we give people in the audience a chance to ask them questions as well.”

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