On Friday, Northeastern’s School of Journalism and The Center for the Arts and Social Impact co-hosted a conference called Conversations: New Frameworks for Public Discourse. I attended the first event of the conference, a panel called “True listening beyond the data: making sure we hear and understand.”
Director of the School of Journalism Jonathan Kaufman opened the conference with a welcome address about the goals of the conference and how productive conversations are even more important in this time of extreme polarization. “It is not just about political divides anymore,” Kaufman said, “many of us can’t even agree on what it means to be an American.”
Kaufman went on to discuss the role that news media has historically played in over coming highly bipartisan circumstances.
“We believed that the internet would bring people together and expose people to different views. In fact it has had the opposite effect. What we discovered in the past year is that we all live in bubbles. We live in bubbles that we create.”
The crux of the panel that I attended was data journalism. And data may provide a way out of those bubbles.
Like all journalistic endeavours, data journalism presents a variety of ethical and technical challenges and opportunities and the three panelists – Brooke Foucault Wells; an assistant professor of communications int he Emergent Media Program at Northeastern, Andrew Heywerd; former president of CBS News and researcher at the MIT Media Lab, and David Lazer; professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern – addressed these issues:
Data journalism is often the combined efforts of interdisciplinary teams, but using data responsibly can be difficult. “I am worried about the over reliance on data without explaining what the data is,” Wells said. ” For example I don’t think that the average person understands algorithmic biases. The data is only as good as the biases that got baked into them. The news does a good job of training people to be critical about sources, we need to start training people to be critical about data algorithms”
Heyward said that data, when used responsibly, could be used to portray the world more realistically: “Data can be used to move from the one sized fits all model of media to a much more nuanced model that reflects what society is like rather than trying to squeeze it into a generic box that everyone will like.”
Wells said that data gives the media a tool to better monitor their own practices and keep themselves in check: “I would like if media organizations used data to analyze their own representation practices,” Wells said. “The media have enormous power to effect not what to think about issues, but which issues to think about. They have a lot of power to dictate what the public is caring about. Data can help look at who the voices being features in stories are. Are we having black people speak on black issues are we having women speak on women issues. People need to space to speak on issues they care about.”