Algorithms today influence, to some extent, nearly every aspect of journalism, from the initial stages of news production to the latter stages of news consumption. While they may be seen as technical objects with certain material characteristics, algorithms are also social constructions that carry multiple meanings. Algorithms are neither valueless nor do they exist in isolation; they are part of algorithmic assemblages that include myriad actors, actants, activities, and audiences. As such, they are imbued with logics that are only sometimes reflective of journalism’s. Algorithms have played an active role in a broader quantitative turn within journalism that began in the 1970s but rapidly accelerated after the turn of the century. They are already used to produce hundreds of thousands of articles per year through automated journalism and are employed throughout the many stages of human-driven newswork. Additionally, algorithms enable audience analytics, which are used to quantify audiences into measures that are increasingly influencing news production through the abstractions they promote. Traditional theoretical models of newswork like gatekeeping are thus being challenged by the proliferation of algorithms. A trend toward algorithmically enabled personalization is also leading to the development of responsive distribution and curated flows. This is resulting in a marked shift from journalism’s traditional focus on shared importance and toward highly individualized experiences, which has implications for the formation of publics and media effects. In particular, the proliferation of algorithms has been linked to the development of filter bubbles and evolution of algorithmic reality construction that can be gamed to spread misinformation and disinformation. Scholars have also observed important challenges associated with the study of algorithms and in particular the opaque nature of key algorithms that govern a range of news-related processes. The combination of a lack of transparency with the complexity and adaptability of algorithmic mechanisms and systems makes it difficult to promote algorithmic accountability and to evaluate them vis-à-vis ethical models. There is, currently, no widely accepted code of ethics for the use of algorithms in journalism. Finally, while the body of literature at the intersection of algorithms and journalism has grown rapidly in recent years, it is still in its infancy. As such, there are still ample opportunities for typologizing algorithmic phenomena, tracing the lineage of algorithmic processes and the roles of digital intermediaries within systems, and empirically evaluating the prevalence of particular kinds of algorithms in journalistic spaces and the effects they exert on newswork.
Allison J. Steinke and Valerie Belair-Gagnon
In the early 2000s, along with the emergence of social media in journalism, mobile chat applications began to gain significant footing in journalistic work. Interdisciplinary research, particularly in journalism studies, has started to look at apps in journalistic work from producer and user perspectives. Still in its infancy, scholarly research on apps and journalistic work reflects larger trends explored in digital journalism studies, while expanding the understanding of mobile news.
Automated journalism—the use of algorithms to translate data into narrative news content—is enabling all manner of outlets to increase efficiency while scaling up their reporting in areas as diverse as financial earnings and professional baseball. With these technological advancements, however, come serious risks. Algorithms are not good at interpreting or contextualizing complex information, and they are subject to biases and errors that ultimately could produce content that is misleading or false, even libelous. It is imperative, then, to examine how libel law might apply to automated news content that harms the reputation of a person or an organization. Conducting that examination from the perspective of U.S. law, because of its uniquely expansive constitutional protections in the area of libel, it appears that the First Amendment would cover algorithmic speech—meaning that the First Amendment’s full supply of tools and principles, and presumptions would apply to determine if particular automated news content would be protected. In the area of libel, the most significant issues come under the plaintiff’s burden to prove that the libelous content was published by the defendant (with a focus on whether automated journalism would qualify for immunity available to providers of interactive computer services) and that the content was published through the defendant’s fault (with a focus on whether an algorithm could behave with the actual malice or negligence usually required to satisfy this inquiry). There is also a significant issue under the opinion defense, which provides broad constitutional protection for statements of opinion (with a focus on whether an algorithm itself is capable of having beliefs or ideas, which generally inform an opinion).