by Posted Fri, Apr 1 2005
For years now, we in the news business have marveled at how machines were replacing humans on manufacturers’ assembly lines, in the exploration of space, in military campaigns and in data processing when it came to speeding up computations, flying airplanes, guiding missiles or, most recently, combating an enemy on the battlefield.
The automation of modern society always has made a good story. We dwell on several aspects of this in Tech Notes and articles on blogging and citizen journalism in this issue.
But we have not really thought about how the computer revolution affects the gathering of news. Cyber-robots are making editorial judgments, and we have not really paid much attention to that. In our concern for an answer to the question “Who Is a Journalist?” we have only discussed the matter of “amateurs” (those with access to the Internet, with a desire to speak out but without any formal journalism education, training or affiliation) versus “professionals” (those who have a track record in the news business).
There have been endless discussions of such matters as editorial liability, believability, the penchant for espousing conspiracy theories, the use of the Internet for spin and the standards of applying principals of free speech and confidentiality of sources.
We have not talked about how editorial functions have been outsourced beyond humanity. Cyber-robots now scan news outlets in nanoseconds to present news reports from around the world to those looking for information on such matters as the Iraq War, automobile racing, hunger in Africa, World Cup football, the Chinese economy or the obesity epidemic. You type in the key words, the robots will bring you the news — untouched by human hands, unaffected by human judgment.
We flew into something of a swivet earlier this year when Reuters announced it was planning to outsource jobs from its main news bureaus to workers in remote India and perhaps in other developing countries. But we have not asked how Google and the other search engines so quickly gather together all of the news reports that we increasingly rely upon in preparing our reports.
Krishna Bharat, the founder of Google News and principal scientist for Google, spoke May 30 at a World Editors Forum meeting in Seoul, South Korea. He described an ambitious program to 350 editors gathered from throughout the world. Google News, he said, wanted to “help organize the world’s news [information] and make it universally accessible and useful [in] every language, every country, every newspaper [and] every story.”
He presented a philosophy for Google News that would make any editor proud:
“We would like to host a conversation about stories in the news.
“All newspapers are invited and will be heard. We won’t take sides. We won’t have a point of view.
“For readers, we want efficient and comprehensive coverage, and an interesting debate.
“With newspapers, we would like a symbiotic relationship, where we add value by generating fresh traffic and bringing new users.
“For journalists, we want to be a research tool, to help them be better and more efficient at what they do.”
How many journalists would it take to create a news organization with these lofty goals and principles? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
When I asked Bharat how many journalists Google News had on its staff, he answered:
He said that all of his employees are engineers. They create algorithms, mathematical formulae, which send the cyber-robots scurrying through 4,500 websites looking for information that can be clustered into a group of reports abut the same subject. The robots do the journalism. They even make judgments on which stories in a cluster are most significant.
Andrew Nachison, director of The Media Center in Reston, Virginia, chaired the World Editor’s Forum session at which Bharat spoke. But he later criticized Google for not disclosing all of the 4,500 sources it uses for Google News.
“What values, biases and editorial judgments are reflected in the inclusion of those 4,500 plus sites, and exclusion of others? We don’t know because Google won’t name the sources,” he wrote on the WEF’s blog site (http://www.editorsweblog.org/). We need that transparency. But there is other missing information that we need to think about.
Google’s quick-search capabilities are well known and appreciated, and proprietors of other search engines are using the same technology. The companies provide instant facts, fact-checking, background and opinion sampling. At this writing, Google has surpassed Time Warner as the world’s largest media company with a stock-market valuation of over $80 billion.
The technology that makes Google News possible bears further understanding and study by the news business. It does not seem likely that algorithm-driven technology can replace reporting, but it can do a lot of the work some editors now do. Cost-conscious organizations could use it to make reductions that could greatly affect editorial decision-making.
The outsourcing of news gathering to robots is clearly a technological development that needs watching.