Archive for September, 2016


Accuracy in an algorithmic age

In order for it to be effective with users, Facebook must present accurate and fair information. (Photo: Pixabay)

In order for it to be effective with users, Facebook must present accurate and fair information. (Photo: Pixabay)

This week, it emerged that the editors behind the Trending Topics section at Facebook had been fired, and that the algorithm would be at the core of finding stories that users would want to hear about.

It hasn’t gone quite as planned. The notable instance came last Saturday about a story surrounding the Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly. It had been reported that she had been removed from her position after she said she was supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

That story was not true, emerging from the EndingFed news web site, a web site that had not been listed on the trusted media sources list utilized by editors, according to a report from The Guardian newspaper in Britain.

There were also concerns of content that would be offensive also being a part of the trending topics, including a man filmed doing a questionable act with a McChicken sandwich from McDonald’s.

Many users around the world look to Facebook for news on the go, and to engage in conversation about that information with their friends. Because the social network is a significant platform in the dissemination, it is bound by the principles of journalistic ethics, even though it is not a media company itself. The principle extends to the information that is made available in the trending topics section.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says this about the release of information:

“Neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.”

The public are entitled to accurate information to help them over the course of their day, no matter the subject.

Yet, The Guardian report adds, the dismissal of the editors was said to be a long-term plan, with a source saying that the trending module would have learned from curators’ decisions and be fully automated.

The relationship that Facebook and the public has when it comes to the algorithm has proven to be controversial. While it is mutually beneficial for news organizations and the social network to have content appear for the purposes of engagement, the public are still entitled to accurate and fair journalism, no matter how they are consuming it.

It is therefore imperative that Facebook exercises these ethics and emphasizes the need for accurate and fair information. In spite of the toxic workplace concerns raised, the editors who helped curate those trending topics helped the social network do a service in ensuring the information that was made available was accurate.

If Facebook wants to have a better relationship with its users, and indeed the wider journalism community, not only must it be transparent, but it also must be an advocate for accurate information, and showcase it in its trending topics. Otherwise, Facebook will become simply something commonplace in digital media today — just another social network.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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