Second Arab Women‘s Media Conference, October 24-27, 2002, Jordan

Online Journalism and Development of the Arab Media

— by Magda Abu-Fadil

News by Algorithms; Headlines and Leads by Newsblaster:

Algorithms means the repetitive calculations used in finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers and it comes from the Arabic system of numerals or the act or skill of computing with any kind of numerals.

According to Editor & Publisher, the search engine Google introduced a new version of its Google News service that collects news from 4,000 sources on the web and updates it every 15 minutes – without the use of a human editor, but thanks to a computer.

The computer selects the top stories of the day and the best coverage and provides links to them, and it’s entirely automated. It’s what Steve Outing of E&P calls the “global digital newsstand.”

“The service calculates what are the most significant stories being published at any given time, and ranks them according to time published, number of links to the story, and credibility of the publishing organization. It then presents them in a way that highlights news by its importance,” Outing reported.

The Google News main page is considered a “front page” of a global online “newspaper” or “wire service,” with stories placed in categories including top stories, US news, world news, sports, business, science-tech, health and entertainment, he added. Its news database keeps articles for 30 days and it is said to contain more than two million stories.

But critics would say: Where are the human editors, whose judgment is needed to determine what’s newsworthy? Won’t there be errors in the process? Will human editors continue to produce if they can't compete with computer news robots? Some say it fails to rank news reports on the basis of quality and according to a BBC report on the new service, Google News does not employ any journalists. Stories are listed according to how recently they have been published, the number of articles devoted to any given topic and the popularity of the news source.

Yes, admits Outing, there are bound to be errors but one must not forget that the stories selected by the algorithms were already chosen by editors at 4,000 news organizations whose human intelligence determined that they were worthy of publishing – whether online or in print.

“Google News makes its placement decisions on collective editing intelligence, so there’s less likelihood of individual editors’ biases influencing story placement,” said Outing. Chris Sherman, a search engine industry analyst said that this new development would change the way we get online news and urged publishers to take advantage of it. “It supports the news organizations with the best reputations because their content typically bubbles to the top of Google’s story selections. It’s also great news for small news sites, which can be exposed to a huge audience when their content occasionally bubbles up.”

Google News is very useful for journalists wanting to know what other journalists have written about a given topic.

Another interesting development is the use of artificial intelligence to actually write the news. A lead (intro paragraph) to a story can be written by computer, thanks to researchers working at Columbia University’s Department of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The experimental prototype called the Columbia Newsblaster looks at news reports from various sources. It’s a tool for journalists and executives sifting through tons of information, according to a report in the Online Journalism Review.

Its artificial intelligence summarizes stories on given topics using natural language processing techniques to read what is written in published news reports, wrote John V. Pavlik.

He said Newsblaster interprets the importance of different facts, based on its own news judgment, reflecting factors such as where a fact is mentioned in the published reports, how often it is repeated across reports dealing with the same event or subject, and the news value of those individual facts such as how many were killed or injured or how much damage to property occurred.

The programmers have included other editorial judgment factors using spiders, or intelligent software agents, to search through each of the sources’ web sites to track down the latest news reports and then sort and summarize them into categories or subjects.

Once it digests the information, the artificial intelligence writes the lead, Pavlik said, adding that Newsblaster also gathers photos and may eventually process multimedia as well.

“Human journalists make connections between facts and between events or stories that can add context to a current report. This kind of contextualization is something that Newsblaster cannot do,” he cautioned.

Accuracy may also fall victim to this method of newsgathering and dissemination, especially if one report says a storm left ten victims in its wake while another says 25.

The author also points to the danger of a machine writing the lead since after days of culling news, the computer can offer stale reports, or can lack the edge journalists and editors put in their introductory paragraphs that grab readers’ attention.

Download the full text of the speech (PDF): English, Arabic

© 2003–2006 IPJ