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Algorithms and Automation in Newswork: Toward a research agenda for understanding emerging actants

Presentation by Rodrigo Zamith, Assistant Professor in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Moderator: Oscar Westlund, professor, Department of Journalism and Media Studies, OsloMet - Oslo Metropolitan University

Place: Pilestredet 48-P168-Auditorium Date and time: Wednesday 16. May 2018 14:45 - 16.45

Rodrigo Zamith

Algorithms today influence, to some extent, nearly every aspect of journalism, from the initial stages of news production to the latter stages of news consumption. While many of those algorithms are designed to merely assist human labor—sometimes intentionally and other times because of technical limitations—a growing amount of newswork is becoming automated. For example, hundreds of thousands of news articles are already produced in an automated fashion each year and headlines are optimized through automated A/B testing. Scholars have taken note of these developments and a burgeoning literature is starting to emerge.

This research presentation focuses on two simple questions: What don’t we know about automation in journalism? How can we study those blind spots? The objective is to begin to map out a broad research program that examines the proliferation of algorithmic actants, and in particular the ways in which automation is influencing not only the actors, audiences, and activities associated with journalism but the very products of journalism and the ways in which we study the field.

The presentation highlights four general areas of inquiry. The first, theories and methods, focuses on scrutinizing the impact of automation on the key theories used within journalism studies and exploring how different methods may be utilized to further scholarly understanding of automation’s role in journalism. The second, networks and structures, focuses on how visible and transparent actors and actants are leading and intermediating automation within journalistic spaces and evaluating how systems may be changing through alterations to (and the displacement of) social arrangements, institutionalized structures, and (e)valuations of labor. The third, processes and practices, focuses on assessing how automation maps onto the dominant logics associated with journalism and how that, in turn, impacts core journalistic activities like storytelling and fact-checking. The fourth, outputs and products, focuses on examining the current and imagined limits to the yield of automation algorithms, including the types and formats of content that presently comprise most of that output and perceptions of the types and formats that cannot be automated. Implicit to these areas of inquiry are opportunities to compare developments across nations and journalistic cultures to assess how they may be emerging in different ways. In engaging with those areas, we as scholars afford ourselves opportunities to not only anticipate the future of journalism but help shape a nascent form of it.

Video of the presentation


Rodrigo Zamith is an Assistant Professor in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research interests lie at the intersection of journalism and technology, with a focus on the reconfiguration of journalism in a changing media environment and the development of digital research methods for social scientists. Zamith's recent scholarship includes: “Quantified Audiences in News Production: A Synthesis and Research Agenda” ( Digital Journalism ), “A Computational Approach for Examining the Comparability of ‘Most-Viewed Lists’ on Online News Sites” ( Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly ), and “On Metrics-Driven Homepages: Assessing the relationship between popularity and prominence” ( Journalism Studies ). He is also a recent recipient of the Nafziger-White-Salwen Dissertation Award and runner-up for the Gene Burd Dissertation Award, and is an affiliate faculty member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Computational Social Science Institute. Zamith received his Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Minnesota.