by Jana Simovic
The world of journalism isn’t a stranger to algorithms; we encounter them every day whether it’s research results we receive from search engines or content we see on social media. For me at least, it’s as if algorithms have become one of those friends that no matter how often I encounter, whenever someone asks me to explain exactly what it is they do for work, I’m at a loss for words.
For context, Britannica defines an algorithm as a “systematic procedure that produces—in a finite number of steps—the answer to a question or the solution of a problem.”
In terms of news dissemination, there has been an undeniable rise in concerns regarding the kind of influence these “systematic procedures” have on people’s initial receptions and perceptions of news as more than eight in ten adults in the United States get their news from digital devices — like smartphones, tablets and computers, according to the Pew Research Center.
These influences have been given numerous monikers, ranging from misinformation, echo chambers and filter bubbles (if your curiosity has peaked, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has an interesting “Future of Journalism” podcast episode on their research into people’s attitudes towards news consumption).
I had the opportunity to talk with Elaina Plott, a national political reporter and current staff writer at the Atlantic, who is no stranger to reporting on topics and people who are directly tied to the increasing bouts of misinformation we see. Plott explains her concerns, “I think I see more issue now is that with a lot of these platforms, the ease with which one can just sort of curate their own reality. And the algorithm can sort of cater to them immediately with content that they know sort of already corresponds with what they’ve expressed interest in,” she said. “I see that now is more damaging than anything else.”
This plays directly into the rise of mistrust in media outlets, making it essential that reporters think about how to approach topics that will inevitably be found on distribution platforms, like social media — a space where content is distributed solely based on algorithms — to make sure that it has the ability to reach anyone, regardless of algorithmic influence.
When Plott and her colleagues attempt to perform an “autopsy” — which she describes as working backward on a piece of misinformation — on how a certain falsehood has spun out of control, it can be challenging to see how it was even given rise in the first place. An example of this is analyzing how the use of Ivermectin was endorsed by far-right groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was simply a result of a generic fact being spun out of context.
It’s a journalist’s responsibility to consume a variety of news sources, making efforts to read and see as many sides to a story or topic as possible and to acknowledge biases along the way. However, for anyone else this may not be a reality whether it’s due to lack of time, patience or simply lack of media literacy, “In a healthy democracy, I do think citizens would have a baseline level of trust in, you know, major media outlets, but that’s unfortunately not the case anymore,” said Plott.
For Chicago-based education reporter Sarah Karp, there has been a realization regarding the importance of journalists’ presence on social media in terms of reaching audiences as it has evolved into a space where news breaks and is discussed at length.
At the end of the day, reporters need to make efforts not only to cover daily events but also to step back and help people see these topics and events in context through a fuller picture, according to Karp.
“The real value of good reporting is when you can kind of help people see that what’s happening today, you know, happened before and what happens then,” said Karp. This is achieved by staying true to facts, data and history.
By using this mindset, Karp can bring audiences into the world of a special education aid within a school or into the kind of environment that is found in a Muslim day school that received a threat. In the same way, Plott can analyze the granular ways in which national politics manifests in people’s lives while trying to understand major trends through small communities, making both her and Karp renowned reporters no matter how an algorithm interacts with their work.
Algorithms are undoubtedly a significant factor in the way that news is perceived today, making it essential to understand and work with them. However, approaching anything with a starkly polarized view rarely yields positive results; perhaps the best method of approaching algorithms is with the impartial mindset that is ingrained within us; as neither friends nor foes. Instead working to provide true depictions, facts, analyses and nuances is our most powerful defense to fight the spread of misinformation, now and long into the future.