Ethics by algorithm

Facebook needs to be more open about its work to help journalism thrive. (Photo: Pixabay)

Facebook’s annual F8 conference began today in San Jose, California. F8 is a two-day conference designed to examine and look ahead to new features for developers and other parties who want to use the social network as part of their work.

The business of journalism and the business of social media have been synonymous. As I wrote on this blog last month, content is king, and with benefits also came questions, notably that of the algorithm, and how it judges the content that users see. Criticism had been made of Facebook for not being transparent enough about it, and news organizations had raised concerns about the algorithm.

The most recent concerns came from Kurt Gessler, Deputy Editor for Digital News at the Chicago Tribune. In a piece published today on Poynter’s web site, Gessler raised concerns about the algorithm as the Tribune worked to engage its audience on Facebook, noting that a third of the Tribune’s posts were not being surfaced by Facebook, causing a decline in the organic reach of the newspaper. This occurred despite a growth in the number of people who like the Tribune’s Facebook page.

Adam Mosseri, speaking today at F8, acknowledged that Facebook had not been the best in communicating its changes to news organizations and publishers. Mosseri also shared some insight into how the algorithm determines what content goes to users.

Mosseri also said that Facebook was training the algorithm to detect content and flag content, in light of the video that emerged this week from Cleveland where a man allegedly shot an elderly person – something my SPJ colleague, Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman, wrote about on Sunday. (Disclosure: I’m a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.)

Mosseri said that the social network needed to react more quickly.

Mosseri also said that the social network was considering a new discovery tab that for content audiences might be interested in.

While its uncertain if the Discovery tab will come to fruition, it will likely again cause changes to social strategies for news organizations when it comes to their relationship with Facebook.

Facebook’s role in journalism is unprecedented, and today’s discussions were a step forward in helping understand a couple of important aspects about its role, and what is ahead. However, more needs to be done.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent. Though it is not referred to as a media company, Facebook is by nature a media company, and it too should be transparent, whether it comes to issues about its algorithm, its news feed, or new features.

This transparency helps not just journalists who look to Facebook every day as a way to disseminate the news (be it through posts on pages or via Facebook Live), but also audiences who consume news, a reason why Facebook continues to have a significant amount of users.

The business of social media has become a core part of the future of journalism. In order for it to be at its best, it must be open about what it does. While today’s discussions are a step forward, more questions need to be answered and more conversations must be conducted, led by either journalists or Facebook, in order to help journalism thrive as we try to assess its future in the digital age.

We must also do this for journalists’ most important task of all – that irrespective of platform, journalists continue to do what the Code of Ethics encourages from the start – seek truth and report it.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and 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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