show promise enlisting more eyes and
ears in accountability reporting.
For many aspects of accountability reporting, including beat and investigative work, a key question for the future is
whether journalists’ research problems
are scientifically interesting, challenging, or even new enough. Some could
be solved with new user interfaces that
accommodate journalism’s quirks.
Others are bothersome impediments
to more interesting work. For example,
possibly the most intractable problem in investigative reporting remains
the form in which the material arrives,
often on paper, with large sections
blacked out by censors, or in large files
combining images of thousands of individual records (such as email messages,
memos, forms, and handwritten notes).
The investment required to address
the problem is unlikely to be made in
the news industry and may not interest software developers or scientists.
Philanthropists, academic institutions,
and spin-offs from government-funded
research may ultimately provide the solution, not computer scientists.
Journalism and computer science
schools have begun to address the
questions at the intersections of their
fields. Two top journalism programs,
the Columbia University Graduate
School of Journalism and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, have initiated interdisciplinary
programs with computer science or engineering departments. At the Georgia
Institute of Technology, professor Ir-fan Essa teaches an influential course
in computation and journalism, conducting research in the field, while
videogame scholar Ian Bogost explores
new ways to use games in journalism.
Fortunately, funders have also
stepped into the financial vacuum
surrounding watchdog journalism.
The largest is the Knight Foundation,
which funds the annual $5 million
Knight News Challenge contest and
other grants and programs, along with
university centers, startups, and non-
profit investigative news sites. Knight
has funded digital innovators Every-
Block, DocumentCloud, and others.
Projects funded through government
programs (such as scanning and digiti-
zation projects at the National Archives
and the Library of Congress) might fur-
ther help address the challenges.
How might the worlds of politics, governance, and social discourse change
when computational journalism fulfills its promise? Not surprisingly, part
of the answer is journalistic: Stories
will emerge from stacks of financial
disclosure forms, court records, legislative hearings, officials’ calendars or
meeting notes, and regulators’ email
messages that no one today has time
or money to mine. With a suite of reporting tools, a journalist will be able
to scan, transcribe, analyze, and visualize the patterns in these documents.
Adaptation of algorithms and technology, rolled into free and open source
tools, will level the playing field between powerful interests and the public by helping uncover leads and evidence that can trigger investigations
by reporters. These same tools can
also be used by public-interest groups
and concerned citizens.
Much more of the answer, though,
involves democracy itself. How can
citizens govern themselves if they are
unable to hold their governments ac-
countable? This ancient question is
often phrased as “Who guards the
guardians?” A hundred years ago, or
even 20, the answer might have been
“full-time journalists.” But today they
can be only part of the answer. Jour-
nalists need to partner with computer
scientists, application developers,
and hardware engineers. For decades,
the computing community has em-
powered individuals to seek infor-
mation, improving their lives in the
process. Few fields have done more to
give citizens the tools they need to gov-
ern themselves. Few fields today need
computer scientists more than public-
We would like to thank James Bettinger, Glenn Frankel, Ann Grimes,
Jeffrey Heer, Michael Schudson, John
Stasko, Fernanda Viegas, and Martin
Wattenberg for generously reviewing
and improving this article.
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Sarah Cohen ( email@example.com) is Knight professor of
the practice of Journalism and public policy at the sanford
school of public policy, duke university, durham, Nc.
James T. hamilton ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the
de Witt Wallace center for Media and democracy and
charles sydnor professor of public policy at the sanford
school of public policy, duke university, durham, Nc.
Fred Turner ( email@example.com) is associate
professor of communication and director of the program
in science, technology and society, stanford university,