zondag 25 september 1994

Computer Assisted Research and Reporting. Cahier 11, 1994

  • 1994 Computer Assisted Research and Reporting. 
  • Cahier 11 uitgave FCJ. 
  • P. Vasterman en  P. Verweij.

Journalism and the New Public Arena

Peter Vasterman, Peter Verwey
After looking at the authorities on television who declared officially that there was no reason to panic despite the deaths of two people within days of the accident in the virus lab, Argus turned back to his own computer screen. Within seconds he had access to the electronic highway and began his search for more information about the University lab where a container used for experiments with viruses had been broken. He found his way through the university computer and retrieved extensive information on the research program. The mention of a cooperation program with a university in Sudan alerted Argus immediately. He changed his course for Africa and began running down several databases there. He soon discovered that in one of the smaller universities scientists were working on the still rare but extremely dangerous Ebola virus that had swept away more than fifty villages in the past in Sudan and Zaire before disappearing mysteriously. So there might be a chance that the Ebola virus killed the two American researchers as well, Argus thought, but what if the authorities won't confirm this? He decided to contact several virus specialists using discussion lists and newsgroups.
Within two hours after Argus went back to his PC, a breakthrough was in the making: one of the researchers on the network confirmed experiments with the Ebola virus. This seemed too good to be true, and more important: without the electronic networks Argus would still be door-stepping with the authorities. Within an hour Argus could present his discoveries at the electronic news meeting and soon after that file his story. He was already looking forward to the happy hour at the electronic paper on Friday, the only time during the whole week he would meet his colleagues in person, just like in the old days.....
This could be a preview of what the electronic newsroom will look like. You don't have to struggle your way through heavy traffic before you get to the paper -at least an hour late- you can just stay at home behind your own screen. You'll be in touch with your colleagues during the daily news conference by using your modem connection. You might even see their faces on your screen, that is if you really prefer to see them. So the computers, linked together in networks, are going to change the daily routine of the reporter. But more important: this development will change the methods and techniques for gathering and checking information. What if a reporter can have access to a lot of computer networks with all kinds of resources? When he can make interviews, retrieve information from electronic press conferences and check that information by electronic research? Will it change the journalistic profession in a more fundamental way than all technological changes in the past, from the telegraph to the introduction of computers at the news desks? Will it give journalism more power, for instance to check the information provided by the authorities?
But this is not the only challenge coming from the new computer networks. What happens when all kinds of groups in society have access to huge information resources without using the mass media at all, information that is closely tailored to their needs. Journalists are certainly not the only group in society discovering the blessings of the cyberspace. A new 'virtual community' of network users all over the world is developing already at this moment, adding more participants to the 25 million network users every day. They are not only searching but also distributing information, even on a large scale. If the media can be bypassed like this, what does that mean for the role of journalism in the future? A new electronic public arena seems to be on the way, changing not only the role of journalism but also the way politicians campaign for (electronic?) votes. In this issue of Cahier several authors will explore this electronic future for journalism.

Electronic Superhighway
The electronic superhighway seems to be the most popular 'buzzword' in the debate about the future. To compare the new computer networks with the American interstate road system is a bit deceiving. The most important feature of the computer networks is that it is not a completely new system: it is based upon an existing infrastructure. That is to say: the global networks use local computer networks, telephone lines and of course personal computers, linked to the networks by using fast modems. Local networks have been connected, creating a worldwide network, also known as the Internet.
This network of networks now seems to be a sort of prototype of the future information superhighway. It acts as a global network that links together large commercial services like CompuServe as well as thousands of smaller university, government or corporate networks. Its development was not really planned or foreseen: the Net was formed by a process of accretion and fusion that started during the cold war. The U.S. Department of Defense needed a decentralized computer network in order to prevent total destruction of the American defense system after the first Russian atomic bomb hit an American target. In 1968, with support of the Defense Department, Arthur D. Little Labs of Cambridge, Mass. built a program, the so-called Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) that enabled computer mainframes on different locations to communicate with each other.
During the past decade Internet has grown enormously: more than 11,000 universities, government agencies, as well as all kinds of corporations are connected with this huge, decentralized computer network. With an account on the Internet you really have a special driveway leading from your personal computer to this gigantic electronic highway that reaches probably more than 25 million users all over the world -although at this moment most users are still American. But the rest of the world is catching on at great speed. Sometimes even on the electronic highway traffic is heavy, and during rush hours some connections get overloaded. Even there traffic jams seem inevitable.
Internet users have various possibilities to search and retrieve information. Electronic mail, or e-mail as it is called, is the oldest and simplest form. E-mail is not only used for sending private messages, but also for taking part in electronic discussions about a wide range of topics: from the Hubble telescope to sex. Other network tools make it possible to connect to another computer (Telnet). If this computer contains databases we can research the information stored on line, but it is also possible to retrieve files and applications from that computer (by using FTP, File Transfer Protocol). Unfortunately these classic Internet tools are not user friendly, so new ones were invented. The introduction of special Internet browsers such as Gopher or WorldWideWeb (WWW) make it much easier for the user to control the flow of information on the net, because they use self guiding menus.

Computer Assisted Journalism
For journalists the Internet opens new ways to search through enormous amounts of information and at a much higher speed than the traditional methods of research provided. The computer networks enable the reporter to get the relevant information right into his database or spreadsheet. At first sight this electronic research doesn't seem to differ much from the traditional methods. News wires and telephone lines are being replaced by computer connections; it's faster and bigger, but is it really innovative? And don't these new research methods have the same 'classical' problems of validity and reliability, but in a somewhat different format? For example: how reliable is the information given in an electronic interview? And: how to check the (electronic) information found in databases?
There are people like Tom Koch, an American-Canadian investigative reporter, who predict fundamental changes in journalism as a result of this electronic information gathering. News that does no more than quote officials and their experts -the news as it has been- is dead, is his opinion: the future of news lies in the world of computer assisted journalism. It enables the reporter to dig into the causes and the consequences of an event. "Computer Assisted Journalism is the therapist", says Koch , "It can create the links between the consequence and event, taking writer -and therefore reader or viewer- through the antecedents of an occurrence to demonstrate who is right. (...) Traditional reporters can rarely do this because they don't have the knowledge or the background to call a politician's or expert's bluff. They don't have the books or reports that allow them to say, 'all available evidence proves x is right and y is not. You lie.' But with computers, they can get those reports."(1)
Simply because of these new technical possibilities computer assisted journalism opens new ways for journalists to check the information given by, for example, government officials. This development might lead to a shift in the balance where the reporters will become less dependent on the information of the official sources, so that they can do a better job than just presenting various, sometimes contradicting opinions to his readers. With his new research methods the reporter can give a well-foun- ded judgment based on his own research.
A classical example is the so-called 'drunken drivers case'. After intensive research of databases and analysis of this information by computer programs, American journalists discovered that some of the drivers of the well known yellow school busses had been convicted for drunken driving in the past.
Instead of distributing information from the top to the bottom of society, journalists now have the electronic tools to dig for information and to check the politicians and authorities. This approach will get more important and it will move investigative reporting right into the center of journalism. In his essay in this Cahier Tom Koch will give a report from his digging and mining at CompuServe.

The New Electronic Public Arena
On the net, anyone with a computer and a modem can be his own reporter, editor and publisher -spreading news and views to millions of readers around the world". Traditional journalism is top down, but on the Net, news is bottom up -the many speaking to the many- "and it bears the seeds of a revolutionary change". Predictions of revolutionary change in the media landscape like this one published in Time magazine(2) have been made many times before. For instance when millions of viewers on the globe could watch the same live television broadcast thanks to the new communication satellites. Or when war correspondents could connect directly with the home desk by using their own satellite dish, so footage could be broadcast within seconds. But, fundamentally, in most cases everything stayed the same in the 'one way' relationship between the media and the public. The media still are the most important managers of the public arena in every democracy. But looking at the structure and organization of the Internet several characteristics are pointing in a new direction.
This network is sort of a chaos, it is completely decentralized with no central supervising authority, government or commercial corporation. There are no concentrations of ownership tendencies and there are no media moguls dominating the scene; the network is really in the hand of its users.
Communication is no longer a one way street. It is no longer one-to-many, but many-to-many. In newsgroups or discussion lists everyone has access to the rest and can report whatever news or opinion to the rest. Of course you can start your own list.
Because of this decentralized two-way system, ratings or circulation figures do not matter anymore. In magazine publishing the segmentation of the market is limited by scale economics: even a very specialized magazine needs a certain amount of readers in order to survive. Segmentation and fragmentation can be endless on the Net, and that creates new publishing perspectives. The costs stay the same with a thousand or a million users, quite different from a traditional magazine or newspaper.
As a consequence of all these endless flows, computer information cannot in any way be controlled by authorities, law enforcement agencies, politicians, dictators or military juntas. It is impossible to prevent whatever kind of information from getting on the Net. At the moment there is only the social control by the users of the net. People who violate the netiquette can count on a lot of 'unfriendly' e-mails to say the least.
Overlooking the development of the Net until now one is tempted to predict a real communication revolution. Network users can do what journalists do as a profession, that is to retrieve and to publish information, to gather facts and opinions and distribute them. In a situation where large parts of the mass audiences use electronic networks, the traditional mass media will probably face new demands. Maybe the news function of the media will change: instead of just supplying the latest news or the most relevant facts and opinions, journalists will have to specialize more in checking the information coming from all kinds of (electronic) sources. Who is supplying all this electronic information? Can this information be trusted? Are there political or commercial strategies involved? Computer assisted reporting gives journalists the tools to do that, but on the other hand the new situation might also demand that change in strategy. The traditional journalistic approach is getting quite outdated when every consumer has a direct access to the ongoing news flows. They want more from journalism in this new electronic public arena.
There might also be a place for a completely new profession in this electronic era: that of the information agent, who serves as a specialist in computer research for all kinds of other professionals like the journalist, the attorney, or the surgeon. A sort of mixture between the journalist, the librarian and the researcher. Nora Paul, researcher and computer assisted journalism trainer at the American Poynter Institute in St Petersburg (Fl., USA), will explore this new field in her contribution to this publication.
Although the Internet and CompuServe are getting popular in the Netherlands, there is only a very limited amount of information in Dutch available in electronic format. The Dutch journalist still has to spend many lonely hours in dusty archives to get information on, for instance, public spending. Even the latest census figures from the agency for official statistics, the CBS, are only available on the somewhat outdated Videotex system. It is no surprise that computer assisted research is still in its infancy. But the first pioneers are getting to it as is being shown in the story of the Dick van Eijk working with NRC-Handelsblad in this Cahier. In the spring of 1994 Van Eijk made a complete computer analysis of the results of the national Second Chamber elections. Within a few years computer assisted journalism will hopefully gain a foothold in the Dutch media.
How the electronic public arena will develop still remains mystery: will the chaotic and decentralized structure of the Net survive? What if the media multinationals try to take over the development of the electronic superhighway? What if it becomes very expensive to retrieve vital information? Instead of a new electronic public area we might as well see a huge electronic shopping mall, visited by passive consumers instead of active citizens. But at this moment the perspectives for a revolutionary communication change are positive and a challenge to journalism.