Algorithms and Journalism
- Rodrigo ZamithRodrigo ZamithJournalism Department, University of Massachusetts Amherst
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.