Three innovations in digital journalism
Developments in augmented reality, automated fact-checking, and blockchain-based journalism could enhance the practice and business of news reporting.
The year 2017 was rich in news innovation. Besides the trends explored on this website, several other technologies and practices picked up steam over the last year and are likely to grow this year. The three trends highlighted below show great potential, though they are are still under development or evolving.
The proliferation of fake news—along with the widespread misuse of that phrase—has turned into a major problem in the U.S. and around the world. Since the 2016 election, fact-checking has become an even more essential newsroom practice.
But fact-checking has also become a more time-consuming and costly process, given the rapid pace of misinformation on the Internet. So what if fact-checkers could get some help from artificial intelligence?
Multiple organizations have tried to answer that question, and several have made great strides over the last year. Automated fact-checking has been tested in a variety of formats—browser extensions, message bots, and apps—and it’s being touted as a tool for journalists as well as the general public.
In December, the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University estimated that the number of active fact-checking organizations in the world stands at 137, up from 44 in 2014. That’s good news, but the problem is bigger than any purely human-powered tool or organization can solve.
“The challenge is that the human fact-checkers frequently have difficulty keeping up with the rapid spread of misinformation and the speed at which they spread,” said a report by ClaimBuster, an automated fact-checking initiative based at the University of Texas at Arlington. “The reason is that fact-checking is an intellectually demanding, laborious, and time-consuming process.”
- ClaimBuster is a machine-learning tool developed by computer scientist Chengkai Li and his team at the University of Texas at Arlington, in collaboration with outside journalism experts and computer scientists from Duke University and other institutions. The tool rates whether a sentence is check-worthy, on a scale of 0 to 1.0. It combs through statements, speeches, and documents, detecting sentences and key words that warrant fact-checking, based on a human-labeled dataset, a process that can save reporters a considerable amount of time.
- Full Fact is a British fact-checking organization with a similar mission as American counterparts PolitiFact and FactCheck.org. It offers several automated fact-checking tools and is working to develop others.
One tool runs every sentence spoken in the British Parliament or printed in newspapers against claims Full Fact has previously checked. Another tool checks TV scrolling subtitles in real time using reliable databases. Full Fact is also developing an app for journalists to use while covering live events. The app would record a speech, transcribe it, and verify claims prompted by the reporter. A common thread among these initiatives is the ability to use an organization’s own database to check claims. “All of that process, which can take a manual fact-checker ages, can be done in a fraction of a second,” Full Fact director Will Moy told Poynter in a 2016 interview.
- FactPopUp, a Chrome extension developed by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, is a tool providing real-time fact-checking to users watching live stream political events through pop-up notifications. It was deployed during the third presidential candidates’ debate in 2016, Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, and his first speech to Congress. Fact checks would pop onto the screen showing PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rating for certain statements, with each message sent by a PolitiFact editor, so the tool was far from fully automated.
The code for FactPopUp is available on GitHub, so users can experiment with their own versions of the tool.
At the Reporters’ Lab, a team dedicated to fact-checking research has built and tested several automated tools and apps in recent years. It’s led by Bill Adair, the founder of PolitiFact. The team was awarded a $1.2 million grant last fall by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project, and the Craig Newmark Foundation.
Dhruv Ghulati, co-founder and CEO of the UK-based startup Factmata, argues that automated fact-checking is “a very difficult task to solve within natural-language processing,” or the ability of computer software to understand human language as it is spoken. Fact-checking tools require a dataset of facts to check against, and many claims do not have binary answers (true or false, yes or no). Factmata’s prototype, which is under development, would focus on verifying claims that contain entities, such as people or places, and statistical properties, such as figures and hard data.
Although reporters and editors can’t currently count on computers to determine the accuracy of more nuanced and complex statements, advances in artificial intelligence could produce valuable assistance for some simple and time-consuming fact-checking tasks.
Not only is manual human fact-checking a burden on human resources and painful; it is actually inefficient at stemming the tide of global misinformation due to the pace of the Internet. Human fact-checking just cannot keep up.
Automated fact-checking is no longer just a dream. Advances in artificial intelligence will soon make it possible to provide people with real-time information about what’s true and what’s not.
We are months—and relatively small amounts of money—away from putting practical automated tools in fact-checkers' and journalists’ hands. This is not the horizon of artificial intelligence; it is simply the application of existing technology to factchecking.
Why is this important?Computers and the evolving science of artificial intelligence could help fact-checkers keep up with the increasingly fast pace of misleading and false information on the Internet.
People to follow
Bill Adair is the director of the Duke Reporters' Lab and the creator of the fact-checking website PolitiFact.
Mevan Babakar is the digital product manager and project lead for automated fact-checking at Full Fact.
Alexios Mantzarlis is the director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute.
Dhruv Ghulati is the co-founder, CEO and research scientist of Factmata.
The use of computers—and the evolving science of artificial intelligence—to assist in the verification of factual claims.
Although virtual reality represents a remarkable opportunity for journalism to engage audiences, the amount of skepticism and reluctance in newsrooms still runs high, with distribution and production costs as key hurdles.
Yet its sister technology, augmented reality, has drawn a lot of interest, and is slowly gaining adoption by innovative news outlets. Augmented reality, or AR, has not been widely used, but notable examples—such as The New York Times’s look at the 2018 Winter Olympics—show the news industry has the power to set the standards for the technology. A key advantage over VR is that AR can be experienced through a smartphone camera, dramatically lowering the barrier of entry.
AR allows users to overlay digital content—videos, pictures, graphics, text, and holograms—onto the real world through not only smartphone cameras but headsets and special glasses. It’s not a new technology, but it has been gradually reaching the mainstream, especially after the hugely popular game Pokemon Go in 2016.
AR has also been used for other commercial purposes, including sightseeing, navigation, medical procedures, and military training, as well as for advertising. The Ikea Place, developed in partnership with Apple, was one of the most talked-about AR apps in 2017. It lets users virtually place furniture or other Ikea merchandise in their own homes, allowing prospective buyers to see whether the color, size, and shape of an object would be a good match for the space.
In the palm of your hands
Much of the progress in augmented reality applications came last fall, after Apple released its latest iPhone models, all of which support ARKit, the company’s new AR platform. The fact that Apple has embraced the technology shows AR will most likely be known as a smartphone feature, instead of one only available through expensive and large headsets or smart glasses like the Microsoft HoloLens.
The HoloLens, which Microsoft describes as a “fully untethered, see-through holographic computer,” is hands-free and more immersive, but you have to buy them—and the price is steep, starting at $3,000.
Filmmaker Bob Sacha, who teaches journalism at the City University of New York, describes the phone as the gateway to a wider use of AR.
“The phone is the way we exist in our world, the way we communicate, the way we take in information, so the fact that AR is perfectly suited to the phone is a great match,” he said.
- CUNY is one of several universities exploring the potential uses of augmented reality, but its journalism application “You Are Here” stands out from the pack. The university’s Director of Interactive Journalism Sandeep Junnarkar and Director of News Products and Projects Jere Hester created a “time travel” prototype. The app employs AR to show blurbs and historic images of sites throughout New York City through the user’s smartphone camera.
- The Washington Post launched its first augmented reality story in 2016, when it used a special app to recreate eight scenes leading up to Freddie Gray’s death while in the custody of Baltimore police. Last September, just days after Apple released its latest iOS update, the Post launched its first AR story embedded in its Classic app. The story featured 3D visuals and audio narration to describe how the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., came about.
- Quartz also immediately updated its smartphone app after the new iOS release, launching an AR story that featured a 3D model of the Cassini spacecraft for users to examine as if it were in the same room as them.
- That same month, The Wall Street Journal launched a feature in which viewers can explore the U.S. stock market in real time through a holographic 3D view of trading that can be projected onto a table or floor in front of them.
A huge opportunity
AR helps to bring users face-to-face with objects they would never see otherwise, such as historic structures and data visualizations. But the technology still has many challenges. It’s not that easy to create high-quality 3D images, and many in AR stories still struggle to look natural because of lighting and stability issues. The public gets most of its information from text, so most AR features are not presented as their own stories but as complements to text-based articles.
“The thing that’s interesting about these technologies is that they’re all new, so there’s no definitive use for any of them,” Sacha said. “It may turn out to be that there’s no great use for it, but the thing I’m loving about journalism now is that it seems that many people have begun to be interested in trying new things, where 10, 20 years ago that wasn’t the case at all.”
In the same way we can use images and emoji and gifs to bring alive the stories we’re sharing, we think we can use AR to help people understand objects in the news.
For the media industry, virtual and augmented reality projects are, in early iterations, proving fruitful by promising unique opportunities for consumer engagement. How these new opportunities will evolve, what business models will emerge, and what creative combinations of technology and content will capture minds and markets remains to be seen. What is clear is that the time to experiment and invest is now. Media, tech and communications companies would be wise to invest in structuring experiments and building expertise with the tools and methods that will be used to construct ‘future reality’—when digital information and experiences are incorporated into the world around us seamlessly. Fortunes will be made and lost along the way — the challenge is before us.
Why is this important?Augmented reality opens up new and interactive ways to illustrate stories and requires nothing more than a smartphone.
People to follow
John Keefe is a bot developer and product manager at Quartz.
Nonny de la Peña is the founder and CEO of Emblematic Group.
Francesco Marconi is the R&D chief and head of the editorial lab at The Wall Street Journal.
Bob Sacha is a filmmaker and journalism professor at the City University of New York.
A technology that overlays digital content onto the real world through the use of smartphone cameras, special glasses, or headsets.
Blockchain is one of the most talked about technologies of recent years, making Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies possible. It’s a shared and secure online database that’s been likened to Google Docs, where multiple users can access content yet all changes can be tracked to individual parties, or an incorruptible digital ledger, where each transaction among a chain of computers must be verified and recorded. It allows consumers and suppliers to connect directly, without a central authority or middleman.
Journalism is one of the latest industries to explore the technology and its advantages. Although existing projects are just starting to take shape, they are worth keeping an eye on this year, especially Civil.
Civil is a decentralized marketplace for journalists and readers to collaborate and fund coverage of news stories. It aims to create a more direct connection between journalists and readers, bypassing publishers and advertisers.
The platform, backed by $5 million from the blockchain venture studio ConsenSys, will launch its first publication in 2018: Popula, a politics and alternative news website led by journalist Maria Bustillos. Readers can support journalists through CVL tokens, Civil’s digital currency, and in the process they will get a stake in the currency if its value rises.
“We’re not a news publication: we’re a blockchain-based platform on which journalists can independently found and run Newsrooms focused on local, policy and investigative journalism,” Civil’s co-founder Matt Coolidge said in a post on Medium. “We believe that the ad-driven business model is slowly killing good journalism — which is itself a critical foundation for free, democratic societies. So, we’re introducing a new model.”
Coolidge described two blockchain concepts that would be key for Civil: permanence and governance. Permanence means that records cannot be suddenly corrupted or taken down. No single computer or centralized government will be in control of Civil’s data. Each piece will be stored and secured through a shared database. The same system works for payments to individual publications. Payments will be recorded and updated on the digital ledger, and copies of every transaction will be stored in each of the millions of computers on the blockchain. As for governance, engaged users—those who financially support Civil’s publications, help to fact-check stories, and recruit new readers—will get voting rights that can be used, for instance, in disputes over ethics violations.
“This is a big deal, and marks a significant departure from the norm. Under journalism’s current model (and most businesses’, for that matter) all of a given network’s profit and power is concentrated within a single company, or even individual,” Coolidge wrote.
Civil has dedicated $1 million to a “First Fleet” of about 200 reporters and 30 newsrooms, including Popula, The Windy City Reporter in Chicago, and Drugged Up, a site covering the opioid crisis. An independent advisory board will govern the blockchain-based platform to ensure fair and professional practices. Civil’s current advisors include the founders of Old Town Media: Former Politico journalists Katherine Lehr, Tom McGeveran, and Josh Benson.
Other blockchain-based journalism initiatives include PressCoin and PUBLIQ, both of which launched initial coin offerings in late 2017 and promise to create new media ecosystems that people can trust.
“Overcoming the obstacles of both the journalism industry, which struggles to monetize meaningful engagement, and a tokenized business experiment, which relies on this same factor for success, would be an ambitious challenge to say the least,” wrote reporter Leigh Cuen in an article for the International Business Times.
It’s too early to tell whether or how soon any of these ventures will draw mainstream adoption. However, with the explosive growth of Bitcoin, more journalists and newsrooms will be looking into blockchain technology.
Until a self-sustainable form of funding quality journalism and civil debate is widely adopted, everyday people will increasingly distrust the government, the media and each other.
If we want information that is true to the best of our ability to report it, unaffected by commercial or political interests, we need to remove the influence of advertisers or sponsors on editorial concerns. Money never comes without strings. That’s why we can’t allow anyone but our readers to pay the bills.
Whether it is the panacea or not, I don’t know that. But I do think there are many aspects to it, particularly the smart contract, particularly the distributed ledger, particularly the notion of community trust that could help form the news ecosystem of the future.
Why is this important?At a time of declining revenue and trust in the news industry, even radical ideas like blockchain-based journalism are worth exploring.
People to follow
Matthew Iles is the CEO of Civil
Maria Bustillos is the editor-in-chief of Civil’s upcoming digital magazine Popula
Tom McGeveran is the co-founder of Old Town Media
Leigh Cuen is a writer at CoinDesk
A decentralized ledger that exists on multiple computers, with no central authority, and whose transactions are open for all users to see.
A blockchain-based virtual currency that uses cryptography to verify and secure transactions.