Reuters Panel Explores How Data is Shaking up the Journalistic and Digital Worlds

21 Oct 2015

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L-R, Ethan Zuckerman, Vivian Schiller, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Maurice Tamman and moderator Reginald Chua.

On Oct. 19, influencers from various parts of the media world, along with a packed room of newsmakers and marketing professionals, gathered together for a Reuters Special Event: Informing Society in the Data Revolution. The hot topic of the night, data journalism, sparked a lively panel discussion on how unprecedented amounts of data, rapidly changing technology and individual access to story-telling tools are reshaping news, influencing elections, and transforming the way we as a society gather, process and consume information.  The one-hour talk, moderated by Reginald Chua, executive editor, data & innovation at Reuters, took place at Thomson Reuters’ 3 Times Square headquarters in New York.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief, Stephen J. Adler, introduced the panel, and described data journalism as “a very important way of gathering information” that is fast becoming essential to the profession. Said Adler, “A central challenge is to find better ways to harness technology as it changes, to figure out what works, what doesn’t, both to get the data and figure out how to use it.” A further challenge he said is how to apply journalistic standards of accuracy, fairness and solid news judgment to such rapidly changing styles of storytelling.  Maggie Chan Jones, CMO of software maker SAP, the sponsor of the evening’s event, expressed her own personal awe at how much technology has changed over the course of just two presidential elections.  “The American voter has transformed to the digital voter,” she said, adding that when it comes to the election process, the most important thing to today’s data-driven voter is real-time information.

Sharing their vast knowledge, along with points of concerns and excitement, were panelists Stacy-Marie Ishmael, managing editor, Mobile News, Buzzfeed; Vivian Schiller, consultant, formerly head of news, Twitter, president and CEO, NPR; Maurice Tamman, editor in charge, data & computational journalism, Reuters; and Ethan Zuckerman, director, MIT, Center for Civic Media.

Concern over a well-informed, effective citizenry was unanimous among panel members, who each contributed their own unique perspective on the barriers faced by those who distribute the news as well as those who consume it. Schiller, while praising the ubiquity of mobile technology and never-before-seen accessibility of information around the world, won many nods of approval from audience and panel members alike when she pointed out the oft-overlooked fact that finding the right information within that digital ecosystem takes a lot more skill and effort than in the old “lazy” days of turning on the evening news or picking up a newspaper. Epitomizing this, said Schiller, is Twitter: “If you work Twitter, it is spectacular. There is no greater source of news if you have curated who you’re following to an inch of its life. If you haven’t, and you’re new to it, then it’s not giving you the information you need.”

Adding to that thought, Ishmael said, “What I think you have to try harder to find, are things that are worth your time.” For news organizations and platforms like Buzzfeed, which are transitioning into news providers, transparency on where information comes from is crucial, Ishmael said. “Vox gets a lot criticism for explaining things to people, but it’s actually quite refreshing.”

Perhaps the greatest concern keeping panelists up at night is the great echo chamber of information that peer-generated newsfeeds and decision-making algorithms seem to invite. “Most of us have a very strong tendency towards homophily, towards walking with birds of a feather,” observed Zuckerman, adding that what his friends are paying attention to, to a large extent is what he’s paying attention to. And while it may be easy to curate what one reads on Twitter, Zuckerman noted that curating a circle of Friends on Facebook was a lot harder. To which Ishmael replied dryly, “Get more interesting friends.”

Facebook humor aside, panel members’ concern over the mission of professional news organizations to serve the public interest were very real. Said Maurice Tamman of Reuters, “I think the problem is because we can’t find a way to make money quite frankly, that we are ceding our place within the social contract to collective intelligence and algorithms.And I’m uncomfortable with that.” Even more discomforting to Tamman is what he sees as the gradual eclipse of empirical-based journalism by social media, i.e. the persuasion of opinion over fact. Said Tamman, “The biggest joke on the part of the debates was people sitting around, ‘Well, on Twitter, Bernie won.’ Bernie didn’t win, we know that! Come on, let’s not kid ourselves!”

Rounding out an engaging conversation that everyone in attendance seemed to enjoy, Chua asked the panel what concerned and excited them most about the data journalism landscape. In reply to the latter portion of Chua’s question, the most hopeful response came from Zuckerman, “My hope, my ‘the best of times’, is that we are seeing people able to come together, organize, share information, do extraordinary things as citizens coordinating our lives. And that is potentially incredible politically powerful and I hope over the next 10 years that we will see that flower and branch.”

By Anne Marie Lee