Need for sustainable developers-slash-journalists

Posted on January 14, 2009



Recent discussion (Eric Ulken,Emily NussbaumCindy Royal) on the people behind the New York Times website puts a new light on the role of the sustainable computing practitioner. 

The breadth of the impact of computing is what drives many of us to take sustainable computing beyond our own footprint.  This is recognised in statements such as NACCQ’s policy that makes sustainability a priority for computing education: 

Computing and IT underpins every sector of society as a pervasive and influential discipline with global impact. The NACCQ vision is that our graduates, our practitioners and our academics understand the concepts of social, environmental and economic sustainability in order for them to evaluate, question and discuss their role in the world and to enable them to make changes where and when appropriate.

Emily Nussbaum describes the emergence of the web team as fundamental to the Times: 

Each day, peculiar wings and gills poke up on the Times’ website—video, audio, “drillable” graphics. Beneath Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column, there’s a link to his blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, and YouTube videos. Coverage of Gaza features a time line linking to earlier reporting, video coverage, and an encyclopedic entry on Hamas. Throughout the election, glittering interactive maps let readers plumb voting results. There were 360-degree panoramas of the Democratic convention; audio “back story” with reporters like Adam Nagourney; searchable video of the debates. It was a radical reinvention of the Times voice, shattering the omniscient God-tones in which the paper had always grounded its coverage; the new features tugged the reader closer through comments and interactivity, rendering the relationship between reporter and audience more intimate, immediate, exposed.

In this new role of “developers-slash-journalists”, the potential impact is enormous.   As the future of journalism becomes programming and interaction with data and more of our graduates find themselves in this position, the question must be asked, are we preparing them for this responsibility?     

The role is clearly a computing job.  Eric Ulken (Making Sense of Data at the New York Times) quotes Aron Pihofer head of the Interactive Newsroom Technologies group:

He does throw out a lot of prod-dev terms like agile development, scrums Extreme Programming and pair programming, but he uses newsroom analogies to describe them.  Agile development methodology, for example, which stresses frequent deadlines and shuns long meetings, has a lot in common with the rhythm of a newsroom. And pair programming, an unconventional workflow in which two coders work in tandem on the same problem and test each other’s work as they go, is analogous to team reporting.

At least three of my own graduates have held titles along the lines of “Editor – web edition” for various newspapers.  Others are in TV,  online news sites and so on.  Crucially, there has been a significant change recently – these people are making decisions about the news, prioritising and presenting, they are not just technicians for someone else.  Emily Nussbaum quoting Aron Pihofer:

The proposal was to create a newsroom: a group of developers-slash-journalists, or journalists-slash-developers, who would work on long-term, medium-term, short-term journalism—everything from elections to NFL penalties to kind of the stuff you see in the Word Train.” This team would “cut across all the desks,” providing a corrective to the maddening old system, in which each innovation required months for permissions and design. The new system elevated coders into full-fledged members of the Times—deputized to collaborate with reporters and editors, not merely to serve their needs.

Michal Migurski  argues that the impact of this new approach to news is quite fundamental: 

Overall, I think the New York Times application is an example of serious, cutting-edge journalism, offering readers (?) a way to make and test theories about the progress of a long-term event. It’s valuable in the same way as the terror alert vs. approval rating chart, and for many of the same reasons. The barrage of noise generated by the 24-hour news cycle is desperately in need of simplifying views that help illustrate co-occurence and possible causality of news events.

We have then, a new discipline.  One which combines computing and journalism to produce a hybrid with significant impact. 

Cindy Royal has a journalistic take on this, asking what elements of computing should be added to journalism education.   Frankly, I think she’s dreaming.   There’s no way a bit of database understanding will produce journalists capable of the development on the Times site (Casualties of War for example).   However, it is probably equally “no way” that a bit of journalism bolted on to a Computer Science degree will produce the depth of understanding and craft of a journalist. 

I think this lacking shows on the Times site.   The elements of the Casualties of War certainly do take a narrative approach to presenting data:  

Grim and elegant, it aimed to “show one person, but give the feeling that they’re one of many,” says Dance. (Nussbaum)

This is important, says Royal “because it shows you don’t have to lose the personal in an aggregation of data”.   What I’m not seeing is other important elements of journalism – balance in particular.   While there are news reports on the NY Times website of  Iraqi civilian casualties, these have not had the attention of the web-team.    While we have stunning drill-down graphics telling the story of US casualties, they are only telling half the story (or, more accurately 5% of the story).   Lily Hamourtziadou tells the other side of the story, both in data and narrative:  

Claim on behalf of Iraqi [Redacted] by parent. [Redacted], a four year-old girl, was playing in her front yard when she was killed by Coalition Forces’ (CF) fire. The CF and a Humvee were trying to cross the road and they shot to clear the traffic. A bullet ricocheted off of a wall and hit [Redacted]. Army memo: “A SIGACTS investigation revealed no activity meeting” the incident’s description, and “the claim is too old to verify.” Finding: denied due to lack of evidence. Condolence payment of $2,500 US granted.

In fact, during the last five months US forces in Iraq have killed over 600 Iraqi civilians. Regrettably, as always.

Data is available for both sides of the story (US/Iraqi), and any deaths on both sides are personal and horrendous.   The NY Times web team has clearly chosen the story they wanted to portray.  Hence our developers-slash-journalist geeks have found themselves in an area of journalistic ethics. 

Journalistic ethics is not a simple matter.  Witness the complexity of the decision process in the BBC’s stance on Climate Change:  

    We do not need consistently to ‘balance’ the reports of the IPCC. When we broadcast outlying views we should make sure we do not over represent them and we should keep a rough balance of views from either side of the IPCC. If we do not, we will distort the issue and risk misleading or confusing our audience.
    We must also be more savvy about the way we treat outlying views – and we should make it clear to our audience when an interviewee holds a minority position.  

My point is that in this new era,  we are going to have to work carefully to ensure the capabilities delivered by the new toys are used appropriately.  I doubt that many in computing education could say that we are properly preparing graduates for roles in a new discipline such as this.   It serves to highlight for me the need for our focus on sustainable practitioners.