A similar push is also under way in
investigative and public-affairs reporting. Researchers and journalists are
exploring new methods, sources, and
ways of linking communities to the
information they need to govern themselves. A new field is emerging to promote the process: computational journalism. Broadly defined, it can involve
changing how stories are discovered,
presented, aggregated, monetized, and
archived. Computation can advance
journalism by drawing on innovations
in topic detection, video analysis, personalization, aggregation, visualization, and sensemaking.
Here, we focus on an aspect of
computational journalism with a particularly powerful potential impact
on the public good: tools to support
accountability reporting. Building on
the experience of an earlier generation of computer-assisted reporting,
journalists and computer scientists
are developing new ways to reduce the
cost and difficulty of in-depth public-affairs reporting.
This aspect of computational journalism faces technical challenges
ranging from how to transform pa-per-based documents into searchable repositories to how to transcribe
collections of public video records.
It also faces difficulty applying existing technology through user interfaces that accommodate the specific
needs of journalists. Finally, it faces
cultural challenges, as computer scientists trained in the ways of information meet journalists immersed in
the production of news. If it is able to
BY saRah cohen, James t. hamiLton, anD fReD tuRneR
How computer scientists can empower
journalists, democracy’s watchdogs, in the
production of news in the public interest.
THANKS IN No small part to the modern computer’s
ability to gather and disseminate seemingly limitless
amounts and types of data, the institutions on which
the public depends for information about government
are melting away. To some this shift may look like a
good deal: Why not trade a few newspapers for what
appears to be infinite access to information? But as
news staffs decline, so too does the public’s ability to
If there’s a silver lining in this situation, it is the
ability of computer scientists to strengthen the hands
of the remaining professional reporters and engage
new players in the watchdog process. Advances in
analytic techniques, computing power, and the
volume of digitally stored documents have prompted
improvements in making sense of unstructured data.
Much of the work to date has focused on the consumer
arena: Web searches, blog discussions, tweets, and
text messages that generate terabytes of information.
Marketers, social scientists, information professionals,
and governments have all invested heavily in innovative
algorithms to analyze these sources.
;;; the public-interest journalism on which
democracy depends is under enormous
financial and technological pressure.
;;; computer scientists help journalists
cope with these pressures by developing
new interfaces, indexing algorithms,
and data-extraction techniques.
;;; for public-interest journalism to thrive,
computer scientists and journalists
must work together, with each learning
elements of the other’s trade.