Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Tech companies should employ real journalists, not algorithms

When you think of Apple News, the words “high-brow journalism” probably don’t come to mind. But it turns out Apple News has been doing its readers a service previously unheard of in the technology industry — hiring real journalists to work behind the scenes.

Apple employs about a dozen former journalists to choose the stories that the app’s approximately 90 million users read on a daily basis.

A machine or algorithm can pick headlines that are drawing the most coverage or gaining national attention on a given day. It can pull sensational headlines for maximum profit. But it can’t put real thought into picking articles that provide nuanced information or promote work that readers wouldn’t see anywhere else.

The fundamental difference between Apple News and news on Google or Facebook is that Apple understands their job is not to use technology to assume the role of a journalist, especially when journalists are already suffering cuts in their own newsrooms.

While Google, Facebook and Twitter have all found themselves entangled in controversy over the role they play in spreading misinformation — in the 2016 presidential election, Russian agents used Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms to send messages to voters — Apple is the only one that has managed to stay out of the line of fire.

An algorithm is not safe from cyber-security threats, but a person can’t be hacked. Apple is putting real effort into giving readers the best news possible — not bypassing the press to decide what work to promote or where to direct public attention, but giving the press a platform and magnifying its voice at a time when people are directing their attention away from news outlets.

Technology companies play an increasingly important role in packaging journalists’ work for the public. Two-thirds of American adults get their news on social media, at least occasionally, according to the Pew Research Center.

A majority of the same Americans who get their news on social media also say they are skeptical of what they see on social media. However, this skepticism isn’t enough to turn people away from Facebook and Twitter for their daily information.

When people are unwilling to invest a little extra time to visit the websites of newspapers they might view as reliable, but they don’t trust the sources that they continue to get their news from, this builds a sense of distrust with modern journalism. The way to remedy this isn’t to bring consumers back to print journalism, because that won’t happen. It’s to create a sense of trust with online platforms.

Most Boston University students probably don’t pick up a copy of The New York Times or browse its front page every morning. Even if you’re someone who believes you’re up to date on current events, most of that information is likely coming indirectly from some form of technology. The policies that these corporations have affect our understanding of the news, whether we know it or not.

We should be talking more about the disservice news services do to both the journalism industry and media consumers when they use bots to promote sensational articles.

It’s true that the journalists working at Apple News are providing another level of gatekeeping, deciding what people should be reading. It’s impossible to remove a person’s bias when they decide what stories to promote, and people who are concerned about that aspect have every right to be.

But the alternative is a machine built by people with those same biases. Real people can understand that sensationalism doesn’t equate to value for readers, and real people can prioritize accuracy over speed.

When a company uses an algorithm, they’re promoting clickbait culture. Taking that step to base content on the input of people who know the news best is something to be admired and emulated.

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