Journalism as Information Science

The core activity of journalism basically boils down to this: knowledge production. It’s presented in various guises: stories, maps, graphics, interviews, and more recently even things like newsgames, but it all essentially entails the same basic components of information gathering, organizing, synthesizing, and publishing of new (sometimes just new to you) knowledge. To be sure, the particular flavor of knowledge is colored by the cultural milieu, ethics, and temporal constraints through which journalism extrudes information into knowledge. Journalists add value to information and news by making sense of it, making it more accessible and memorable, and putting it in context.

Many of the practices followed by journalists in the process of knowledge production can be mapped quite neatly to corresponding ideas in information science. Thankfully, information science studies knowledge production in a much more structured fashion, and in the rest of this post I’d like to surface some of that structure as a way for reflecting on what journalists do, and for thinking about how technology could enhance such processes.

Much of what journalists are engaged with on a day-to-day basis is in adding value to information. Raw data and information is harvested from the world, and as the journalist gathers it and makes sense of it, puts it in context, increases its quality, and frames it for decision making, it gets more and more valuable to the end-user. And by “value” I don’t necessarily mean monetary, but rather usefulness in meeting a user need. This point is important because it implies that the value of information is perceived and driven by user-needs in context. And the process is cyclical or recursive. The output of someone else, be it an article, tweet, or comment can be fed into the process for the next output.

Robert S. Taylor, one of the fathers of information studies at Syracuse University, wrote an entire book on value-added processes in information systems. Below I examine the processes that he described. There may be some information processes that journalists could learn to  do more effectively, with or without new tools. Taylor organized the processes into four broad categories:

  • Ease of Use: This includes information usability such as information architecture (i.e. how to order information), design (i.e. how to format and present information), and browseability. When journalists take a table of numbers and present them as a map or graph they are making that data far more accessible and usable; when they write a compelling story which incorporates those numbers it is also increasing value through usability. Physical accessibility is also important to ease of use, and there’s no doubt that the physical accessibility of information on a mobile or tablet is different than on a desktop.
  • Noise Reduction: This involves the processes of inclusion and exclusion with an understanding of relevance that may be informed by context or end-user needs. Journalists are constantly engaging as noise reducers as they assemble a story and decide what is relevant to include and what is not, and even by their very judgement of what is considered newsworthy. Summarization is another dimension of this, as is linking which provides access to other relevant information.
  • Quality: A lot of value is added to information by enhancing its quality. Quality decisions depend on quality information: garbage in, garbage out. Quality includes aspects of accuracy, comprehensiveness (i.e. completeness of coverage), currency, reliability (i.e. consistent and dependable), and validity. Journalists engage (sometimes) in factchecking to enhance accuracy, as well as corroboration of sources as a method to increase validity. Different end-user contexts and needs have different demands on quality: non-breaking news doesn’t have the same demands on currency for instance. Seeing as quality (i.e. a commitment to truth) is a central value of journalism, it stands to reason that tools built for journalism might consider new ways of enhancing quality.
  • Adaptability: The idea of adaptability is that information is most valuable when it meets specific needs of a person with a particular problem. This involves knowing what users’ information needs are. Another dimension is that of flexibility, providing a variety of ways to work with information. Oftentimes I think adaptability is addressed in journalism through nichification – that is one outlet specializes in a particular information need, like for example, Consumer Reports.

You can’t really argue that any of these processes aren’t important to the knowledge produced by journalists, and many (all?) of them are also important to others who produce knowledge. There are people out there specialized in some of these activities. For instance, my alma mater, Georgia Tech, pumps out masters degrees in Human Computer Interaction, which teaches you a whole lot about that first category above – ease of use. Journalism could benefit from more cross-functional teams with such specialists.

The question moving forward is: How can technology inform the design of new tools that enable journalists to add the above values to information? Quality seems like a likely target since it is so important in journalism. But aspects of noise reduction (summarization), and adaptability may also be well-suited to developing augmenting technologies. Moreover, newer forms of information (e.g. social media) are in need for new processes that can add value.