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Silicon Valley's Power Over The Free Press: Why It Matters

Facebook may not create stories, but it's the largest distributor of news stories for many news organizations.
Peter Macdiarmid
Getty Images
Facebook may not create stories, but it's the largest distributor of news stories for many news organizations.

A big shift happened in news and information over the past few years: The people who write news and information no longer control the distribution of it. Technology companies do.

Specifically it's Facebook and Twitter — the large social platforms created in Silicon Valley.

"We have reached a point of transition where news spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers," Emily Bell told an audience at the University of Oxford recently. Bell, who led the digital transition of The Guardian, is currently at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. (Here's her Guardian column version of the speech.)

Previously, Bell says, "the pioneers of journalism were also pioneers of communications technology." Today, the press no longer controls the platforms by which our stuff gets to audiences, she says. Instead, Bell says, they are controlled by private companies that are "unaccountable" to the public in the same way, since they're fundamentally accountable to commercial interests.

How We Got Here

News companies lost control of distribution because they weren't traditionally tech companies, staffed with engineers or thinking programmatically. Today, as even Domino's Pizza shows, every company must become a tech company if it wants to control its fate with customers.

Bell says:

"We lacked the institutional will or insight to move swiftly enough in the right directions and we were held back in transformation by large, legacy organizations and the revenues that came with them. And doing journalism is a hard, resource hungry business."

The software developer and "father of blogging," Dave Winer, puts a finer point on it:

"Journalism stood by while blogging took root. They covered it, but largely dismissed it. They ignored RSS. They ignored everything, including the threat to their art. I warned them many times, here on scripting.com, that they would regret letting the tech industry own their distribution system. But that's what happened. Without any resistance whatsoever. Journalism let tech move in and take over."

As Bell has chatted with me about before, it's very hard to run an innovation "lab" inside a "factory" which is turning out news every day. And as the Innovator's Dilemma has highlighted, it's exceedingly difficult for businesses to turn away from their main source of revenue right now to consider the revenue they'll need five or 10 years from now.

Here's The Danger

Social media platforms now edit and shape culture, even though they feel kind of allergic to having that responsibility. "Every time an algorithm is tweaked, an editorial decision is being made," Bell writes.

"As news organisations cease to print physical newspapers, as linear television struggles to survive the buffeting of on-demand services, as services become not just digital first but digital only, journalism and free expression become part of a commercial sphere where the activities of news and journalism are marginal. ... Their culture is as alien to reporting and editing as ours is to designing social software."

Algorithms and protocols that run social platforms affect discourse, and the engineers behind those protocols don't have to think about journalism or democratic responsibility in how news is created and disseminated.

A prime example of this is the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of protest photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what news you see.

Bell writes:

"In a world where we navigate our daily lives through social platforms, just how this information reaches us, what is on a 'trending' list, how these algorithms work, becomes not just of marginal interest but a central democratic concern. Even the obscure issue of equal access to the internet, or 'net neutrality', can affect how we get our news and information."

So, Now What?

Journalism organizations should not be wholly reliant on technology companies, Bell says. The only way to be less reliant is to make more of their own technology; specifically, building tools and services that "put software in the service of journalism rather than the other way around," she says.

Journalists and editors should learn to make technology "learn programmatic thinking" and understand the world they operate in, Bell says. She argues that to preserve journalism's traditional role, "We must stop relying solely on the tools and platforms of others and build our own."

Winer, who wrote a response to Bell, adds that the open source tools out there are often ignored, but can be adopted and tooled for news purposes. "We have enough open formats and protocols to build a dozen news distribution systems with all kinds of algorithms," Winer says.

Bell adds that large news organizations (like NPR) that already make technology should extend these types of technologies as part of their core mission.

Finally, she says we ought to be better reporters. Technology is a system of power in it of itself. Journalists should hold it to account.

"Cover technology as a human rights and political issue as if it were Parliament. ... It is just as interesting and about ten thousand times more important," she says. "We have to stop coverage of technology being about queuing for an iPhone and make it about society and power. We need to explain these new systems of power to the world and hold them accountable."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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