Hack the algorithms: Be your own editor

Algorithms are not some mysterious magic behind social media services. Users can control what they see to a certain degree if they know how to “train” the personalized algorithms.

Key takeaways

  • Our ‘snap judgment’ to click, like, and share media content is an ‘editorial’ decision.
  • Platforms take our actions and preferences into the mathematical formulas known as algorithms that determine what content we encounter.
  • Algorithms affect the patterns of our news consumption but to a degree, we can control how the algorithms behave.

Introduction: editorial judgment

[Video transcript]

When news editors and producers are making editorial judgments to decide which stories to allocate their resources, the news values are not the only factor.

They also try to strike a balance between what the audience wants to know and what it might need to know.

The target audience is a big factor in the editorial decisions as well.

We can see this clearly from the design and presentation of the news.

Magazine covers, for example, not only suggest how much time and space are given to main stories, but also visualize the tone of the coverage catered for their intended readers.

On the internet, the audience’s roles are even bigger.

While many newsroom leaders exercise their judgment each day to select some mix of interesting and important stories, users are not necessarily clicking the mixture of stories.

Many people get news from search engine results and social media. The lists of stories you see are determined by the mathematical formulas known as algorithms that take into account our preferences.

The keywords we use when searching for information; the headlines we are inclined to click; the pictures we tend to share — they all feed the algorithms that deliver your daily dosage of news stories.

So, like good news editors, digital citizens also need to understand the newsworthiness of the information we encounter, with a great sense of what is important and interesting not only for ourselves but also for our family, friends, and the overall public.

Now, let’s do a little exercise to train ourselves. First, I would like you to download the PDF document titled Editorial Judgement.

In this document, there are six news items. After you read the description of each item, you will need to decide how important and interesting each news story is, not only for yourself but also for the public.

On this document, you also see the x- and y-axis just as you see them on the screen. You will place each news item on this chart.

For example, if you think the first story is very interesting, let’s give point ten, and relatively important, say point six, then you put the story one in here (see the chart below).

If the second story is not interesting but very important in your view, then it should be placed around here. The third one is neither interesting nor important, so it should be placed somewhere around here (see the chart below).

Although each one of us, including someone working as a professional journalist, has a different set of interests and preferences, we can’t simply click the only things that catch our eyes.

We need to make a conscious effort to look for more.

We could learn a lot about our world and society by looking at those stories that other people deem important and interesting.

When we do so, we are less likely to miss out on critical issues and interesting facts that are actually influencing our lives.

Editorial judgment exercise

  1. Have the students download the exercise sheet here.
  2. Have them work on it individually first.
  3. Then have them work in pairs to compare their editorial judgments.

Here are the sample charts made by two students and their discussion (PDF). You can also listen to their discussion (part 1 | part 2).

Activity: Hack the algorithms (on Facebook)

Step 1:

Show the following video created by Facebook that explains how algorithms work and reflect on the content FB users see on their news feeds.

It is also important to mention that the “sponsored” (paid-for) posts are NOT part of the algorithm described in this video, which Facebook does not mention at all.

Step 2:

Ask students to look at their own news feeds and think about why they see what they see there.

Step 3:

Ask them to search for content they don’t normally see on their feeds at all. For example, if a student follows many pop singers’ pages but doesn’t listen to classical music, he/she can find pages of pianists, cellists, orchestras, and also join some public classical music fan groups.

A student who doesn’t like sports can find and follow pages and groups of basketball teams, fans, and so on. If appropriate, also encouraged them to follow the news outlets they don’t normally come across.

Important note: This activity does mess with their personal FB accounts. Please tell the students in advance and ask if they are willing to do this. They can also opt for creating a new account for this activity and become friends with each other’s new accounts.

Step 4:

[assignment for students] Tell them to observe how their news feed changes compared with before and take notes for 10 days. Ask them to video-record themselves sharing their observation (60–90 seconds).

Originally published at https://newseducation.org on January 24, 2021.



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