Opinion/ Comment

Opinion Article: NICAR 23 – Data, algorithms and artificial intelligence are redefining journalism

Written by Thanasis Troboukis, Data Journalist, iMEdD Lab Project Manager

As I boarded the flight headed to London after my visit to Nashville, United States, I had with me 2.5 gigabytes worth of data journalism notes in my carry-on luggage. To put it into perspective, this amount of data is equivalent to about a million ten-page documents. Contained within the notes were research methodologies, cutting-edge technological tools, ideas for new forms of journalistic storytelling and algorithmic approaches designed to facilitate deeper investigative research. Our attendance at NICAR 2023, one of the world’s premier data journalism conferences, provided valuable insight into the future of journalism worldwide, which appears to be heavily reliant on algorithms.

Back in 1975, a small group of journalists came together and founded IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) in the United States, with the aim of sharing knowledge and best practices in journalism. A few years later, the organisation established NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting), an innovative programme that, for the past three decades, has been equipping the community with knowledge and tools for what we now refer to as data journalism. Every year, NICAR hosts an annual conference that brings together data journalists and journalism students from all over the world to exchange knowledge, experiences, and even lay the groundwork for future cross-border research.

In early March 2023, my colleague Kelly Kiki and I travelled to Nashville, Tennessee to attend the four-day NICAR conference. The conference offered 183 talks and workshops covering a wide range of topics, including web news app development, algorithms in sports journalism, data visualisation and mapmaking, statistical analysis, algorithmic natural language processing and artificial intelligence, new trends in newsroom automation, building inclusive journalism teams, protecting journalists from digital attacks, finding data for wildfire and criminal investigations, financial data analysis, and more. What was once considered an impossible feat in journalistic investigations, such as “interviewing” a PDF or photo, is now achievable and accessible to the general public, regardless of their programming knowledge. Despite these achievements however, the question remains whether traditional media are ready to embrace these innovative developments in their outdated economic operating model.

The recent months have ushered in a new era for humanity, the “Age of Artificial Intelligence,” which began with the GPT model developed by OpenAI, an AI research and development company. The swift and continuous advancements in AI algorithms are having a profound impact on every facet of human life. I am left pondering whether journalism and the media are adequately prepared to adapt to this rapid transition to the new era.

Is it enough to rely on a few thousand data journalists around the world who are trained to understand how these systems work and control them?

Sadly, history has shown that the media is often slow to adopt technological innovations. For instance, although the internet was ‘born’ in 1983, even today, 40 years later, the majority of media still transmit content originally intended for print onto screens. In the “Age of Artificial Intelligence,” we cannot afford to move at such a slow pace.

It has only been 25 days since my return from Nashville, yet dozens of innovative AI projects have already been unveiled that are set to revolutionise the way we work, create, and communicate in the coming months. It is high time that we change the way we inform ourselves, if we are ever to keep pace with this fast-changing technological landscape.