The nature of journalism is undergoing a transformation. New digital tools, such as AI, Big Data, as well as the distribution channels of social media are changing what is required, what is possible in terms of career and offers a new set of challenges. What are these exactly? How can journalism retain its credibility in the digital age? How will it ensure its independence in this era of vastly disparate opinions in digital space? How can the population digest the current information flood consisting of real and fake reports? How does journalism create room for thinkers to have discussions on what we want to achieve using all that is possible in the digital world?
In her latest Duet interview, Dr Caldarola, author of Big Data and Law, and Prof. Christina Elmer, the first Professor for data journalism and digital journalism in Germany, discuss the many important changes in journalism.
You have received the first professorship for data journalism and digital journalism in Germany. Can you please provide our readers with a short introduction on what data journalism is, how the future in media might look like and what developments, initiatives and breakthroughs exist in other countries?
Prof. Christina Elmer: Data journalism is essentially about unlocking structured data as sources of information in journalism. These can be extensive statistics in clear formats or even larger data leaks that we have to evaluate in an investigative way. For this type of analysis, we need new skills, methods and processes in journalism – and teams that are organised in a much more interdisciplinary way than before and are strongly connected with other disciplines and departments. My goal is to ground these necessary skills more comprehensively and, at the same time, train specialists who can focus on this exciting and increasingly relevant area. The field of data journalism has been developing in Germany for about 15 years; in the US, for instance, it has a much longer tradition. We can, however, discern a clear trend in this direction globally, which is not surprising: With digitalisation and the growing availability of open data, journalists can increasingly access relevant data sources in their investigations – and should do so in order to gain new insights and check other sources of information. What emerges can, at best, be called evidence-based journalism. And in my view, this is really an important development. Because, after all, we have to do something to counteract the flood of uncertain, biased or even manipulated information in the digital public sphere.
Digital media currently offers a huge spectrum for all sort of publications. Once there were newspapers and magazines, then came the advent of television while today we use social media and tools, such as AI, Big Data and alike. Information is not only created by journalists but also by people using their mobile devices that record occurrences and provide opportunities to post them on different distribution channels. How do journalists handle the amount of distribution channels and the quantity of information? How are they digested, edited, and validated considering the fact that media companies have fewer employees and smaller budgets?
Of course, media houses try to allocate their resources wisely – even if their budget is tight. In relation to the challenges you mentioned, this means, for example, that the area of developing and refining new products and offers has grown in many outlets, especially regarding digital channels and platforms. These teams take a close look at what media users need and what formats can be used to address them cleverly. In this context, new products with a strong technological component are often created, which is why new constellations and competences are also needed in this area – from data analysis and programming to digital distribution and search engine optimisation. As far as research in the digital space is concerned, journalists are indeed challenged. Checking the authenticity of digital sources has become an important skill – some newsrooms have now set up their own units for this type of work. In research as well as in distribution, we also need new ways of structuring information via metadata and linking it in different contexts. This could also be a way to prepare information in a manageable way so that we can use it appropriately in our processes and for publication.
A picture used to be viewed as evidence for an occurrence. Today every picture can easily and rapidly be manipulated by everybody by means of digital tools. How much effort is required and what techniques do journalists use to verify sources? How do they maintain the credibility of their reporting? How effective are they and how do they function?
One central challenge has always been to trace the source back to its origin, if possible, and to cross-check it with a second source: Who took a photo and how can we assess its credibility as confidently as possible? Also, who was on the scene and could they provide us with a second perspective on it? In addition, in many cases one can indeed find traces of the photo-faking process in the picture itself. These strategies are not new and have always been used in editorial offices ‑and not only for visual sources. Comparatively new, however, are technologies that enable entire video or audio sequences to be fabricated with remarkably little effort. However, there also exist technological tools to identify such fakes, which are already being used in newsrooms. Nevertheless, from my point of view, it would be fatal to rely on these tools, since the fakes are naturally also improving all the time. Conversely, to me it seems reasonable to emphasise the value of credible and verified sources and to make journalistic research more transparent – and, in case of doubt, to always decide against publishing rather than putting faith in journalism at risk.
People are there when something happens and within a few split seconds, post videos, their opinions, reports and similar. How do journalists handle this type of speed, quantity, sensationalism as well as the lack of research, balance, objectivity and proper use of language? Or expressed differently: How do journalists verify sources and content and how does well researched content reach the respective media in time?
There isn’t really a single answer that applies to journalism as a whole – every newsroom has its own processes, deadlines and timelines, depending on the publication channel, the strategy and the business model. However, the following applies to all digital media offerings: In order to stand out from the flood of information, they have to convey more strongly than before what distinguishes them from other publishers. This can mean disclosing the sources and stations of the research, addressing possible conflicts of interest and consistently differentiating between neutral information and opinion, between verified knowledge and the grey areas of reporting. The central issues of our time, such as pandemics, climate crisis and societal transformation, are very complex and cannot be solved with simple recipes. Media can gain trust if they create spaces in which such complex issues can be negotiated. However, this also means resisting the temptation to react quickly and thus work against the reward system of our real-time internet is no easy task in a news world that has steadily accelerated.
Human beings are social beings who most likely share a majority opinion because it helps them feel secure. Are opinions being created with the aid of clicks, tweets and likes? Is an illusion of a mass of human beings being created via a supposed grass roots arising as a movement of citizens which is then also subject to manipulation? -
If society were to inform itself solely through media and if media were to align their reporting exclusively to the metrics you mentioned, there could of course be such an effect. But from my point of view, neither situation is true at the moment. In serious editorial offices, even today, the most important news items are selected on the basis of their relevance – based not only on the response, but also on findings that go beyond that, for example, from scientific studies or statistics.
Mathematicians and data experts from the French Institute for Complex Systems have been investigating the battle for control of virtual space and have visualized it, using the example of the combat between climate supporters and climate opponents. They showed how news were being shared, how accounts were interacting and how communities were growing. This visualisation illustrated that climate opponents are, numerically speaking, considerably fewer in number than climate supporters. By contrast, climate opponents are clearly more active and can compensate for the enormous amount of evidence against them. They could also show that the Heartland Institute is behind the group of climate opponents – a think tank of around 40 employees. This Institute which is located in Chicago produces tweets, conferences and books. Are they the opinion makers and journalists of today or tomorrow?
You have brought up an exciting study that really makes you think! But I would not call such actors journalists –they are simply not independent and impartial enough to deserve that title.
My favourite quote – almost three decades old, but still true:
“Computers don’t make a bad reporter into a good reporter. What they do is make a good reporter better”.Elliot Jaspin
What they do is follow their own agenda, which does not necessarily oblige them to communicate in the interest of a well-informed public. But, of course, especially when it comes to topics with a scientific basis, the media must pay even more attention to adequately covering such discourses. Unlike in socio-political discussions, it is simply not enough to set the two sides against each other when scientific debates are involved – that would produce an effect known as false balance. If there is a position that the overwhelming majority of scientific experts in this field can agree on, then it should logically also be given more space in reporting. Especially with regard to topics which are both scientifically researched and socially negotiated, journalists have to be careful. In my view, this is an important lesson from the pandemic reporting. But it also means that we need new competencies in some parts of the newsrooms, for example, to evaluate scientific experts.
Will Bild TV become the “Heartland” of tomorrow?
That depends on whether the editorial team places journalistic principles and relevance criteria at the centre of its work – or whether it follows other interests and campaigns. That, of course, is something to watch. I find it exciting that current or even live reporting is to be given such a prominent place in the new programme. Providing the necessary context which makes it possible to correctly classify the topics of the day is certainly a major challenge.
Where are the various dissenting opinions? How are these opinions being protected? Or are they getting lost in the flood of information?
In a pluralistic society that protects freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, it is fundamental that minorities be heard. Accordingly, there are various precautions to ensure diversity of opinion in journalism – for example, through concentration control or the appropriate requirements for both public and private broadcasting. In this respect, such protection is provided for – in theory – but we must indeed be careful to keep spaces available for minority perspectives and positions. This is especially true for media offerings that are supposed to be profitable and are therefore particularly prone to focussing on large or affluent target groups.
Amazon has developed in part due to the online sale of books. They sell digital books and audio books for their Kindle. With the help of Big Data analysis, Amazon analyses what their clients purchase, read, which sentences and chapters they underline, quote and which paragraphs they read again. Amazon has now purchased a publishing house and wants to produce tailor-made content based on their clientele analyses to raise their sales. Is that a model for journalism?
Certainly not. Journalism that completely follows what its readers want to hear and optimises its content solely for sales would make itself irrelevant. On the contrary, we should emphasise what journalists are still needed for today – for questions that no one has asked before, for an empathetic view of the world and a creative approach to forms of expression that can evolve as a result. Of course, editorial offices should use new technologies to streamline their processes in meaningful places, to enable research involving large amounts of data and to generate formats for new platforms. But we should not leave the content creation and the evaluation of topics to algorithms. If journalism is to be the place where social discourse is moderated, then it should be shaped by society – and not exclusively according to measurable criteria that can be processed by algorithms.
Wikipedia has replaced encyclopaedias. The publishing houses of encyclopaedias used to have trained employees who researched, evaluated and processed facts, knowledge etc. This group of employees disappeared and every layman can now add knowledge and pseudo- science to the largest and best-known digital reference book. Wikipedia makes efforts to check entries, erase untruths or duly endorse such contributions. Is this transformation an improvement?
The idea behind Wikipedia is brilliant in my opinion – a participatory encyclopaedia that is closely intertwined with today’s society, gives space to niche knowledge and thus reflects much more than a standard encyclopaedia ever could. Of course, this is associated with a different quality standard: A Wikipedia entry can at best serve as a secondary source, that is, as a guide to corresponding primary sources. Therefore, in my view, the two formats are not truly comparable. Nevertheless, it is of course exciting to observe how Wikipedia has developed and what challenges it is currently facing – such as the calls for a comprehensive reform, including more transparency in funding and in the authorship of contributions. That would certainly be desirable, as would efforts for more diversity and gender equality within Wikipedia.
What is journalism doing to combat fake news, agnotology, manipulation, and shrinking budgets to preserve its credibility?
Currently, new models and formats are being developed and tested all over the media system to keep journalism relevant and ensure its credibility. Therefore, it is not at all easy to answer the question in an overarching way. What I would like to address in this context is the user-based development of new products and formats. This focuses on the concrete needs of the audience so that editors have to deal more intensively with the reality of their audience’s lives. I am convinced that this approach can help media to secure trust, stay relevant and build good relationships with their readers. Especially in a digital public sphere, where journalism must always stand out from sometimes aggressive competitors, these relationships matter. And of course, it needs to be comprehensively researched, critically examined and qualitatively prepared content – without it, even the smartest format cannot be successful.
Are people, the readers of news, losing their ability to discern between actual and fake facts, rumours, opinions etc, given the background of constant information flood?
We certainly need new skills to filter and classify the information we are confronted with every day. Journalists can help by not only publishing their stories, but also by making the process of their investigation transparent and explaining how they have come to their conclusions. In my view, however, we should also deepen media education, starting at schools, but eventually addressing all age groups. This education is important because many methods and tools from the journalistic research process also help in everyday life, for example, when it comes to assessing alleged facts that are shared on social media platforms. If more people know how the work is being done in editorial offices, this not only strengthens trust in quality journalism, but also fosters their own judgement.
Is there a fight for opinions and truth taking place on the of journalism home front? How can journalism safeguard its independence in the digital age?
I see journalism, as I have said before, as an institution that gives space to relevant social discourses and moderates them. In this respect, a competition of opinions and a critical search for truths are both essential parts of this system. I wouldn’t call it a battle – but when I think of the digital network public sphere as a whole, there are clear tendencies towards manipulation and polarisation, and personal attacks have become standard in many digital discourse spaces, especially against minorities. This terrain therefore seems more problematic to me, especially if it is more difficult to influence it in a constructive direction. But since journalism is a relevant actor in this sphere, we naturally have a shared responsibility and must do our part. However, this only works if we maintain our independence, and this challenge is indeed even more complex in the digital sphere. It is not enough to simply publish articles and supply them to subscribers. Instead, we have to deal with a complex world of diverse platforms, actors and constantly changing contexts. In particular, if we want to reach new, younger target groups, we have to be present where they are active. It is thus crucial to be clearly recognisable – and to emphasise the values of an independent, critical, value-oriented journalism.
Prof. Elmer, thank you for sharing your reflection on the changes in journalism.
Thank you, Dr Caldarola, and I look forward to reading your upcoming interviews with recognized experts, delving even deeper into this fascinating topic.