Journalism, Professionalism, and the Turing Test

What’s the way forward for journalists? Doubling down on the traditional ideals of objectivity and impartiality? Embracing the subjective, personality-driven approach of social media? Or is there some uncertain, ill-defined middle way?

Turing Test By Bilby (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose are some of the questions being raised recently by a number of new-media observers, most notably GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, who’s lately been rolling out one must-read blog post after another.

The problem with traditional news is that traditional journalists are increasingly unnecessary to produce it. Robot reporters are cornering the market on facts, as companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights perfect the science of teaching software to turn data into news stories.

If basic news becomes a fungible commodity, one obvious alternative for journalists is what Ben Huh says great reporters already do: convey not simply the facts, but their subjective emotions about those facts.  But this, he says, is a “very, very dangerous” approach.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from reporter Anne Sutherland’s recent suspension from the Montreal Gazette for remarks she made on Twitter. Covering a “nearly naked” protest by university students, she tweeted a number of photos of the protestors accompanied by “snarky” comments about their physiques. Neither her Twitter followers nor her employers found it amusing.

Writing about Ben Huh, GigaOm’s Ingram says that “in order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal.” But doesn’t Sutherland’s seemingly personal reaction to the protestors prove the opposite, and that the dangers of being personal outweigh the benefits?

I think not. I don’t know her, of course, but I’d guess the problem isn’t that she was being human or that she was being too personal. Rather, she was responding to the wrong instincts and emotions.  She was there as a journalist, but reacting as an average, and thoughtless, bystander.

In a post written before Sutherland’s misstep, Steve Buttry addressed a similar issue in explaining “how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.” On social media, he says, journalists must be personable, yes, but also professional:

“A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.”

I don’t disagree. But I wonder if professionalism is sufficient. The problem for me is that professionalism is more shield than guiding light. Too often, it is just a way of doing what won’t get you fired.

To succeed in a personal medium, you ultimately need a personal standard. The preeminent question to ask yourself now may not be Is this a professional and objective statement of the facts? but rather Is this my best, most honest, and most personally true assessment of those facts?

This might not seem like the appropriate corrective to the all-too-personal Sutherland. But I suspect her reactions were not truly personal. They sound, rather, like received views, the trite and formulaic reactions not of a person, but of a type of person. It is a behavioral response that could be easily programmed into a Narrative Science algorithm: If see hairy body, then tweet “Ewww.”

In gauging how to handle social media, maybe what journalists need is not so much a standard of professionalism as a kind of Turing test. That is, could what you’re writing be produced by a computer imitating a human reporter?

The test is not whether the content is dryly factual or snarkily silly, superbly impartial or grossly biased. Those traits are easy to replicate. Instead, the test should be whether the prose is truly personal. Does it reflect a real consciousness struggling to find the truth, or an automaton juggling ones and zeroes?

Such a test can never be very precise. But journalism, whether conducted in traditional or social media, would be the better for it.

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