Technology + Journalism = ?

Photo by Farzad Nazifi on Unsplash

Three definitions of the meaning of technology + journalism

I came to journalism from the exciting realm of computer science.

And so, quite understandably, many people around me have excitedly discussed the potentials of “the intersection between technology and journalism.” Or “technology meets journalism.” Or “CS+J.”

But I’ve found myself either feeling disappointed or feeling mislead multiple times during my last three years at Northwestern, and it’s usually because when I heard those terms, I thought the speaker meant something else than how I interpreted it.

So I’ve come up with three definitions of what I think people meant when they said “technology + journalism.”

1. Journalism about technology

This is the bread-and-butter of technology journalists: coverage of technology companies and products. It’s important but relatively uninteresting, and not really what sparks light bulbs and excitement when you say “technology+journalism” — unless you, like me, are a massive nerd.

To say technology journalism is “the intersection of technology and journalism” is to say that Bloomberg News is the intersection of business and journalism. Yes, it is, but you can also intersect business and journalism in the form of the office of a newspaper publisher.

Technology journalism is perhaps best described as “journalism about technology,” just as business reporting is “journalism about business” and automotive reporting is “journalism about cars.”

This is cool and always my favorite section of news coverage, but let’s move on.

2. Technology-enabled journalism products

I consider this category to be all the topics related by the reality that they have been created — or enabled — by technology products.

This includes ideas like the new field of data journalism, as computers, hard drives, digitalization and the Internet have made it possible to produce “news apps,” such as this beautiful project from ProPublica Illinois on Chicago Police Department grievances.

While newspapers might have covered this topic as a long-form investigative piece, it’s doubtful that a piece like CPD grievances would have been published in the pre-digital era. Without a computer, it might have taken weeks to collect, read and comprehend the volume of case files alone. The same data parsing probably takes a matter of hours or days electronically. (Of course, understanding the data is another matter.)

This also includes other news products, such as VR journalism (NYT VR), conversational news (Quartz’s chat app) and smart device apps (“Alexa, what’s in the news?”).

3. Journalism issues exacerbated by technology products

Filter bubbles, editorial-reader disconnects and a lack of diversity of experience and viewpoints are issues affecting the industry that were probably made worse by technology products.

The impact of filter bubbles is well-known, as Facebook was criticized for its heavy algorithmic selecting of content displayed to each user’s News Feed and its involvement in the 2016 US presidential election.

But a lack of trust in established news organizations in keeping the public informed probably has less to do with increasing partisanship and more to do with continued failures of the industry to convincingly connect with readers, as US public trust numbers in the media were already low before the 2016 presidential election campaigns.

And the utter lack of diversity within newsrooms drives home this point: there is no way that news organizations can expect their readers to trust their coverage when their news teams are significantly white and significantly male.

When particular voices are not present in newsrooms and editors’ meetings, important nuances about entire communities are lost. Changes in city zoning requirements might shut down a community center vital to an immigrant community. The reorganization of bus routes would affect the ability of poorer neighborhoods to reach better-paying jobs.

But without people in the newsroom who live these experiences or hear from people who do, it’s difficult to imagine the newsroom would take the news seriously. (And I find it unlikely that a majority-men newsroom would be able to authoritatively appreciate the nuances of Planned Parenthood’s services for women.)

These are my thoughts. I find it important to draw a distinction between journalism things created by technology and journalism issues made worse by technology, because I think the former is great and exciting, and the latter is pressing and increasingly more serious.

But I am not a media historian, and I would like to hear from people like you about these definitions — and whether there is a natural distinction between “journalism products created by technology” and “journalism issues exacerbated by technology products,” or if I’ve made an artificial distinction.

(This piece was also written in response to a realization that I graduate in March 2019 and should probably start looking for jobs, and if anybody would like to hire me to work on any of the three definitions of technology+journalism, I’m available and please do reach out.)