Data-driven journalism: opportunity or dangerous new frontier?

Data-driven journalism: opportunity or dangerous new frontier?
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The explosion of Big Data isn’t just redefining the marketing world, it also has huge implications for journalism and content creation, with analytics increasingly being used by publishers to guide their news agendas.

According to Christina Warren, journalist and senior tech analyst at Mashable, ‘data-driven journalism’ refers to “using various analytics and data cues to figure out what the most important story is, and what the sentiment might be to determine what direction you want to use for a story.”

The phenomenon is growing fast and under the radar. At Mashable, online media is monitored around the clock to gather insights into which subjects and pieces of content are getting viral traction. These insights then direct Mashable’s news agenda.

“Our goal is always to cover content before it goes mainstream. So we have a various suite of tools built in house which monitor things like YouTube share counts, Facebook shares, Twitter tweets about a certain piece of data (in most cases it’s a URL).

“We monitor a thousand different data sources and we have a rating system which shows us ‘hey this is starting to get traction at the top’ which gives us a little bit of a competitive advantage to be able to then look at that content, see if it’s appropriate for our audience and cover it,” said Warren.

In that respect, using data to determine which content will resonate with an audience sounds like a huge win. Publishers are, after all, as hungry for eyeballs as brands are, and this connects relevant content to relevant eyeballs.

But it also poses some seriously unsettling questions. If the most popular topics are pursued at the expense of all others, it’s not too hard to imagine the reporting of important social issues being sidelined in favour of sensational, crowd-pleasing content.

“To me the notion of data driven journalism is actually dangerous to society because we are going to tell stories we want to hear – that are the most popular we are not going to tell stories we don’t want to hear,” said Eugene Hernandez, director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre.

Prior to his role at Lincoln Centre Hernandez co-founded IndieWire – an online news hub for the independent film industry. He was its editor-in-chief for more than four years, and has also written for The Hollywood Reporter, The Wall Street Journal online, Variety and Screen International.

“I left journalism for a lot of the reasons we are talking about… I saw journalism moving towards trying to create content that is purely aimed at generating the most clicks or likes or shares that over time has potentially damaging impact," he said.

Both Warren and Hernandez spoke as part of a panel on ‘Big Data and the Movies’ at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City last week. 

What do you think about the concept of data-driven journalism? Share your thoughts with us in the discussion box below. 

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