Report Recommends Ways to Rescue Watchdog Journalism

The emerging field of computational journalism offers hope for preserving the “watchdog” function of journalism, an essential element in the healthy functioning of democracy, says a report released today by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University.

The report, “Accountability through Algorithm: Developing the Field of Computational Journalism,” identified four target areas for innovation: more efficient data-analysis tools to allow reporters to discover patterns; a digital “dashboard” for journalists with open-source software reporting tools to spot anomalies in everyday information; new watchdog roles for readers; and collaborative research with social scientists, medical researchers and others.

“Accountability through Algorithm” can be downloaded as a PDF from the center’s website: dewitt.sanford.duke.edu. The DeWitt Wallace Center is a program of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Nonprofit Media Conference“Holding public officials accountable is an essential role of the news media,” said James T. Hamilton, a co-author of the report and director of the DeWitt Wallace Center. “Citizens need to know how well their government is handling its responsibilities in order to engage in the political process in a meaningful way. By using algorithms to make sense of data more quickly and efficiently, reporters can leverage technological capacity to continue investigative reporting at a lower cost.”

As reliance on the Internet for news continues to increase, traditional business models for news media are failing to generate enough revenue to support investigative journalism. At the same time, the report notes, public and private data sources are expanding exponentially, computer scientists are rapidly creating algorithms to make sense of large-scale data sets, and social scientists are researching some of the same social problems that interest reporters. The report intends to stimulate dialogue about ways to create convergence among these trends to lower the costs of investigative reporting.

“Accountability through Algorithm” was written by Hamilton, the Charles S. Sydnor Professor of Public Policy at Duke, and Fred Turner, an assistant professor in Stanford University’s Department of Communications. The pair hosted a workshop at Stanford in July with a grant from Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The report is a product of that workshop, whose participants represented the journalism, research and NGO communities.

The center is mailing the 22-page report to about 800 opinion leaders, including editors at the 100 largest U.S. newspapers, deans of journalism schools, chairs of computer science departments, foundation officers, government agencies, software developers, reporters doing innovative digital work and scholars who do text mining in fields such as political science and medicine.

The DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy is working to find solutions to the crisis facing news media. In addition to leading development of the field of computational journalism, the center also is examining non-profit ownership models, targeted online advertising, partisan political information and barriers to information consumption for low-income populations. For more information about the center, go to dewitt.sanford.duke.edu.