Content Specific Computational Journalism

Much of my prior work in the field computational journalism has focused on building tools that could either be used by journalists or readers in their respective capacities as information producers or consumers.  And the recent Duke CJ Report heavily emphasized the role of computation in informing discovery tools to help journalists uncover new stories in vast corpora of data. With the recent push toward civic data transparency by the US Government, computational accountability tools will be essential to uncovering malfeasance.

But here I’m going suggest something a bit different by setting up a spectrum of computational journalism artifacts along the dimension of content specificity. On one end you have the things I just talked about: tools that help journalists uncover stories and make sense of information. These tools are practically independent of any semantics associated with information but can be customized for different data types (e.g. geographic, time, network etc.). They’re also geared toward insight generation and designed for the kinds of work processes and tasks that journalists engage in on a daily basis.

On the other end of the spectrum there are computationally infused presentations of  stories. A computational journalist might use computation in such a story by making models or data interactive. For example one interactive graphic I worked on for SacBee.com is based on an evaporative water model together with scraped hourly Sacramento weather conditions. The goal was to paint a picture of the model and help people understand when best to water their lawns.

Another example comes from editorial simulations such as September 12th. In that interactive, an editorial model describes the relationship between terrorists and anti-terrorist bombing in the Middle East. But while the model and mechanic are of course described abstractly, the semantics of the graphics and interactions are what is essential to the presentation.

Content specific presentations rely heavily on the semantics of the information to convey meaning. Rather than being generic information tools, they intertwine computation with the story itself. Interaction, information, and visual design become essential to communicating a semantically laden model. And in comparison to generic tools, content specific CJ needs to be designed with a “reader” in mind; to disseminate insights (or opinions) with the public in mind.

There’s value to both kinds of computational journalism: tools to help uncover stories and develop models, and specific presentations to effectively communicate those models.