Journalists are starting to catch on that computers are coming for their jobs and the general public might not really care all that much about the fate of the Fourth Estate.

The Pew Research Center has been tracking plummeting public esteem for journalists, with about a quarter of U.S. adults now saying that journalists contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all” to society.

The computer programmer behind Craigslist might have landed a mortal blow to the newspaper industry, but Facebook, Twitter and a variety of other algorithm-oriented companies have been ripping it to bits in recent years, with their clever programs, like a pack of wolves tearing apart a wounded turtle.

A big part of this weakening of the traditional media industry is its own pretentious fault, for not continually investing in research and development, for getting complacent in its business models, for failing to adapt quickly to new communication and computing technologies, for focusing primarily on short-term gains through chains and consolidation and, in general, for treating professional journalists poorly (while these companies were raking in the profits and suppressing costs).

computer delete key technology

Computer algorithms are already replacing reporters and editors in some aspects of news writing.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The clear and inherent societal value of journalists gets reinforced daily when we read, watch and hear about what happens when the world tries to function without them.

Imagine a future (but not too far in the future) where your news primarily comes from conflicted and blathering propagandists, such as Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who gets paid $20,000 a month by the Trump campaign and who has signed a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from disparaging Trump (or any of his family members) in any way whatsoever, under threat of litigation, but who also serves as a prominent pseudo-journalist on a major news network.

Lewandowski actually gets paid to appear on CNN to discuss the merits of the candidates, especially his buddy Trump, while regularly disparaging (at no additional cost) Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton, without much on-air pushback about how fundamentally wrong such an arrangement is in a journalistic context.

In this respect, Lewandowski has become a kind of product placement for Trump and his political operatives. CNN, for its part, not only facilitates the abuse of journalistic principles and values, it even pays the abusers, in its twisted pursuit of profits over people.

Also, as a part of this future (but not too far in the future), computers busily can crank out all sorts of journalistic discourse and decide exactly what you see (and what you don’t) in the day’s news.

At first, these machines only could duplicate the most formulaic and basic kinds of stories, like sports summaries, stock reports and disaster alerts. But as these programmers and programs have become more sophisticated, they threaten to destroy the value of something even more precious to the news industry than classified ads: the telegraph-era writing style known as inverted pyramid.

If the inverted pyramid implodes, because computers can generate these kinds of plainly written stories, in descending order of importance, from a pile of data (documents, transcripts, analysis of security camera photographs), what will the non-computer journalist be left to do?

If you think computers are far off from this objective, take this New York Times quiz comparing a computer’s writing to a human’s. How did you do? If these machines can whip out decent poetry and novelizations, they probably will be able to figure out the inverted pyramid soon enough.

As these programmers and programs become more sophisticated, they threaten to destroy the value of something even more precious to the news industry than classified ads.

Maybe people could be serviceable for editing and gatekeeping in the future, but Google, Facebook, Amazon and many other tech titans already have pushed past the post-human filtering phase. They have made billions of dollars on such strategies, as technopolies tend to do. But they also have revealed something interesting about the nature of journalistic work in the process of automation and news personalization.

That is the material existence of Google bias, Facebook bias and Amazon bias, among others, all based on human bias within their systems, hidden deeply inside the algorithms. Just like I recommend readers to find out what’s behind the numbers, I also recommend investigating what’s behind the computer program. Statistics and computer data are especially convincing at creating the illusion of objectivity and fairness. But they fundamentally are incapable of reaching either of those objectives.

When someone chooses to count something in one way and not another, when a computer program favors one factor over another, human influence is behind those decisions. That’s why the first beauty contest decided by an artificial intelligence algorithm recently ended up with almost all white-skinned winners, because somewhere deep within the code was the bias toward white beauty, put there by programmers.

That’s why crime-predicting software, used across the nation, targets black people. That’s why more men than women get high-paying job ads targeted to them by Google.

That’s also why we need people out front and transparent about information production and filtering jobs. People can be held accountable for their actions in ways that robots, computers and algorithms cannot.

Along those lines, Amazon has brought back people as book reviewers. Facebook has brought back human editors. Apple, SnapChat and Twitter are hiring more humans for editing work. Maybe this means people as journalists have some sort of a future after all.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.