“Our findings imply that platforms may be diverting desperately needed advertising dollars away from local news, and contributing to the nationalization of politics.”
—Sean Fischer et. al
Pandemic walls and the struggle for justice
We are more than a year into the pandemic lockdown, and for many of us, we’re hitting a pandemic wall. It helps bring into focus—a zoomed-in year—what it feels like to be on a continuous cycle of struggle against something we often feel we cannot defeat or that will never end.
This is what being a journalist of color often feels like. We are fighting structures and systems that we can ameliorate—one officer might be convicted for murder—but we constantly work to maintain hope that we can make big changes. In this month’s interactive newsletter, we ask—what structures are we fighting, what structures are we building, and what structures are we celebrating?
As we challenge one unjust gatekeeper, are we inviting another?
By Angilee Shah, independent journalist
As a young reporter, the news media seemed to me like a mysterious black box, full of gatekeepers I couldn’t access and secret doors I couldn’t find. As I progressed in my career, I began to see those gatekeepers as the legacies of unequal systems meant explicitly or implicitly to maintain the status quo of the news media industry, at least in terms of race.
Like it was for so many of my colleagues, Facebook and Google brought freedom. While it didn’t bring financial security or health benefits, it was and is a way for more communities to decide what stories they value and want to tell. And in newsrooms, it gave me leverage to make the case for stories that the gatekeepers would have otherwise never deemed worthy.
As I move through different spaces in news, through editorial, product and business, I’ve watched these platforms evolve. Now I wonder, are we trading one exclusionary gatekeeper for another?
“Racism, discrimination and implicit bias are the devils we now know. Facebook’s algorithm and Google’s search hierarchy are the devils we’re trying to figure out.”
Racism, discrimination and implicit bias are the devils we now know. Facebook’s algorithm and Google’s search hierarchy are the devils we’re trying to figure out.
At the Computation + Journalism Symposium earlier this year, researchers displayed their newest methods for reverse engineering the black box algorithms that have such a huge effect on our information ecosystems. Deen Freelon at UNC-Chapel Hill talked about a tool to help people know if the news they are getting is reliable — and what happens when Facebook cuts off its APIs and access to data that allow us to know.
Pair Freelon’s remarks with recent news that Facebook knowingly provided false data to advertisers, according to internal emails unsealed in a class action lawsuit, and research about how much power Facebook and its algorithm has in local political information ecosystems, and we have a new gatekeeper whose face we cannot see. Who, in many ways, we invited to positions of power in our news ecosystems.
Consider the recent police shooting of teenager Ma’khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. When you search on Google News for updates, chances are that, like me, you’ll only see national news outlets’ coverage on the first page.
Sean Fischer presented findings about the Google News algorithm and how it treats local news outlets. The researchers explained in layman’s terms in the Washington Post that Google News redirects news consumers away from local news outlets and to national ones. The whole paper is fascinating, but if you’re short on time here’s a bite from the introduction: “Our findings imply that platforms may be diverting desperately needed advertising dollars away from local news, and contributing to the nationalization of politics.” Daniel Trielli pointed out the “mainstreaming” effect of Google’s search algorithm in his recently published work as well.
These are new gatekeepers who have power and (advertising) money but offer very little by way of transparency. In recent headlines, Google has fired top ethicists who raised concerns that the company was censoring ethics research into its products. We rely very heavily on platforms whose algorithms we simply do not understand.
As we lean on technology companies in our quest to build more equity in news media, what are we trading? What should we ask for when we partner with Google and Facebook in training, fellowships, and grants?
Like we do with our industry gatekeepers, we need to knock at the doors of technology companies to continue in our work bringing equity to news.
Want more? Read: Is Facebook Buying Off The New York Times? (Washington Monthly, April 19, 2021) Dan Froomkin writes that “organizations that are favored by Facebook will obviously have different incentives going forward than those that are not. Unfavored outlets, if begging doesn’t work, may want to play hardball with Facebook to get their due — while the Times and others will inevitably have qualms before blowing a hole in their budgets.”
Share these wins of REJ Fund grantees with the hashtag #racialequityjournalism!
Buffalo’s Fire and Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance are accepting story pitches from writers and visual artists to better serve American Indian communities. (Image description: Buffalo’s Fire logo)
Flint Beat founder and executive editor Jiquanda Johnson joined a panel of experts on February 25th to discuss the effects of Flint’s ongoing water crisis and the reforms needed to address the city’s future.(Image credit: Sean Marchall / Image description: Faraway shot of the Flint Water Plant with trees in the foreground)
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