Designing Tools for Journalism

Whether you’re designing for professionals or amateurs, for people seeking to reinvigorate institutions or to invent new ones, there are still core cultural values ensconced in journalism that can inspire and guide the design of new tools, technologies, and algorithms for committing acts of journalism. How can we preserve the best of such values in new technologies? One approach is known as value sensitive design and attempts to account for human values in a comprehensive manner throughout the design process by identifying stakeholders, benefits, values, and value conflicts to help designers prioritize features and capabilities.

“Value” is defined as “what a person or group of people consider important in life”. Values could include things like privacy, property rights, autonomy, and accountability among other things. What does journalism value? If we can answer that question, then we should be able to design tools for professional journalists that are more easily adopted (“This tool makes it easy to do the things I find important and worthwhile!”), and we should be able to design tools that more easily facilitate acts of journalism by non-professionals (“This tool makes it easy to participate in a meaningful and valuable way with a larger news process!”). Value sensitive design espouses consideration of all stakeholders (both direct and indirect) when designing technology. I’ve covered some of those stakeholders in a previous post on what news consumers want, but another set of stakeholders would be those relating to the business model (e.g. advertisers). In any case, mismatches between the values and needs of different stakeholders will lead to conflicts that need to be resolved by identifying benefits and prioritizing features.

When we turn to normative descriptions of journalism, such as Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism and Blur, Schudson’s The Sociology of News, or descriptions of ethics principles from the AP or ASNE, we find both core values, as well as valued activities. It’s easiest to understand these as ideals which are not always met in practice. Some core values include:

  • Truth: including a commitment to accuracy, verification, transparency, and putting things in context
  • Independence: from influence by those they cover, from politics, from corporations, or from others they seek to monitor
  • Citizen-first: on the side of the citizen rather than for corporations or political factions
  • Impartial: except when opinion has been clearly marked
  • Relevance: to provide engaging and enlightening information

Core values also inform valued activities or roles, such as:

  • Informer: giving people the information they need or want about contemporary affairs of public interest
  • Watchdog: making sure powerful institutions or individuals are held to account (also called “accountability journalism”)
  • Authenticator: assessing the truth-value of claims (“factchecking”); also relates to watchdogging
  • Forum Organizer: orchestrating a public conversation, identifying and consolidating community
  • Aggregator: collecting and curating information to make it accessible
  • Sensemaker: connecting the dots and making relationships salient

Many of these values and valued activities can be seen from an information science perspective as contributing to information quality, or the degree of excellence in communicating knowledge. I’ll revisit the parallels to information science in a future post.

Besides core values and valued activities, there are other, perhaps more abstract, processes which are essential to producing journalism, like information gathering, organization and sensemaking, communication and presentation, and dissemination. Because they’re more abstract these processes have a fair amount of variability as they are adapted for different milieu (e.g. information gathering on social media) or media (e.g. text, image, video, games). Often valued activities are already the composition of several of these underlying information processes that have been infused with core values. We should be on the lookout for “new” valued activities waiting for products to emerge around them, for instance, by considering more specific value-added information processes in conjunction with core values.

There’s a lot of potential for technology to re-invent and re-imagine valued activities and abstract information processes in light of core values: to make them more effective, efficient, satisfying, productive, and usable. Knowing the core values also helps designers understand what would not be acceptable to design for professionals (e.g. a platform to facilitate the acquisition of paid sources would probably not be adopted in the U.S.). I would argue that it’s the function that is served by the above valued activities, and not the institutionalized practices that are currently used to accomplish them, that is fundamentally important to consider for designers. While we should by all means consider designs that adhere to core values and to an understanding of the outputs of valued activities, we should also be open to allowing technology to enhance the processes and methods which get us there. Depending on whether you’re innovating in an institutional setting or in an unencumbered non-institutional environment you have different constraints, but, irregardless I maintain that value sensitive design is a good way forward to ensure that future tools for journalism will be more trustworthy, have more impact, and resonate more with the public.