Upshot – news by numbers?

Yahoo! has just launched a news “blog” called Upshot. Here’s their mission statement. Editor Andrew Golis promises to “cut through the noise and misinformation and get to the heart of what’s important and why”. Haven’t we heard that before? He continues:

Let me also say that our responsibility is to you — not to our sources, not to people with power, not to other people in the media. We understand that you will read us and we’ll  be able to pay our bills only if we earn your trust. We’ll be nonpartisan and hold everyone to the same, high standard. And we’ll also avoid the lazy reporting practice of just getting quotes from opposing sides and hoping that gets you closer to understanding the truth.

Not responsible to sources? Good luck getting them to talk to you, then. Not answering to people with power? Except, I assume, the people with the most power – the advertisers. Nonpartisan? If that means not being like Fox News, then great.

But if you’re not going to be “lazy” by simply quoting opposing sides, and if you aim to expose the truth, at some point you’re going to have to be partisan. As we’ve seen with the Octavia Nasr sacking, nonpartisan often means pandering to views which don’t have any credibility.

CNN sacked Nasr after certain lobbyists suggested she was a “terrorist sympathiser” for expressing respect (in a twitter message) for a late Shiite cleric who, while a leader of the Hezbollah militia, had a relatively liberal view of women’s rights. Rather than standing up for an employee of 20 years, CNN cited the need to protect their objectivity in the eyes of (certain important) readers and gave her the flick.

Thinking journalists are perfectly right to be partisan when it is the responsible thing to do. Should journalists balance stories about the dangers of smoking with tobacco industry propaganda? Should they balance stories about climate science with the half-baked pseudo-science of the quacks and deniers? Or on biology – must we balance evolution with creationism? Will Upshot ignore or, even better, aggressively criticise American creationists in defence of the truth of evolution? We’ll see.

How will Upshot report, say, a new Tiananmen uprising?

In Indonesia a story in the news this week is a court challenge to the banning of the film “Balibo”, which depicts, based on witness testimony and credible historical evidence, the murder of six journalists by Indonesian troops in East Timor in 1975. The atrocity is now, belatedly, subject to an Australian war crimes investigation. Indonesia says the reporters died in crossfire and banned the film because it is “not balanced” and does not give its side of the story. It has never held an inquest, although an ex-soldier has publicly confessed that, indeed, the reporters were murdered.

The point here is that you can’t balance a story with lies or humbug.

Getting back to the beginning, an interesting thing about Upshot (see the actual news blog here) is that despite all the promises of quality, news-breaking journalism blogging, its news sense is going to be led to a great extent by search algorithms.

Erick Schonfeld at Techcrunch put it this way:

The editors and writers will use search data to pick which stories to pursue. So what kinds of stories are people searching for today? The Upshot hopes they are looking for a video of Israeli soldiers doing a dance to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” the London clubbing habits of alleged Russian spy Anna Chapman, and a handy list of RNC chairman Michael Steele’s five biggest blunders. There are some serious stories in there too such as one on ballooning state and local budget deficits (“Will regional governments go the way of Greece?”). I’d love to see a scoreboard showing the pageviews of how the algorithmically-chosen stories do versus the ones assigned by the human editors. God help us all.

So as CNN sacks a veteran reporter for expressing an opinion, Yahoo is opening a newsroom that promises to let search algorithms guide its editorial policy. Brilliant. I hope you like stories about Lindsay Lohan and Paul the psychic World Cup octopus…

(OK I confess, I like the octopus too)…

If you like that sort of thing, the thinking behind Upshot is called the “democratisation” of news. If you don’t, it’s just another way to get advertisers to pay more by offering a more targeted readership. Given the demise of newspapers, maybe it’s journalism’s only hope.

At the end of the day, consumers of the news media generally get what they deserve.

(Photo courtesy of alex-s via flickr)

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