Skip to main content

Leading Researcher of Algorithmic Use in Journalism Receives CAREER Grant

Assistant professor in Communication Studies Nick Diakopoulos was awarded last month a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (or CAREER) Award, making him the seventh faculty member in the department to receive this honor. Diakopoulos is a foremost researcher of computational and data journalism, with a focus on the human-centered use of algorithms, automation, and artificial intelligence in news production and consumption.

“This grant from the NSF is a key validation of my research agenda in computational journalism,” Diakopoulos says. “It underscores the importance of scientifically understanding how computing can enhance, advance, and will change the practice of journalism in the future.”

The grant, distributed over five years, is given to nontenured professors in recognition of distinguished research and exemplary classroom leadership. It is one of the few significant grants that is available to nontenured faculty, and assists in ambitious, long-term research planning that can eventually lead to a tenured position—and major scientific breakthroughs.

The proliferation of awardees in the Department of Communication Studies illustrates the School’s strategic focus on digital media communication.

“Because online platforms like Google and Facebook are now widely accessed sources for news information, it’s very timely to study algorithms, the step-by-step instructions that computers use to process large quantities of data” says Jane Rankin, the School of Communication’s associate dean for research. “Algorithms make decisions with far-reaching impacts, yet in many aspects they are black boxes and, like the humans that create them, make mistakes and have biases. Nick’s research gets inside those black boxes to understand how algorithms used in news gathering and dissemination are becoming woven into the fabric of everyday life, and how they shape public decision making.”

Despite news about bad actors using algorithms, or “bots,” for misinformation and propaganda campaigns, Diakopoulos says that when used responsibly the technology has the power to positively transform journalism, which is in peril. By and large, news outlet revenue sources are dwindling, paper sales are shrinking, and fewer reporters are pursuing the field or remaining long term. These factors, coupled with political efforts to discredit the media, have left news outlets in a verifiable crisis. Diakopoulos sees his work, which harnesses automation to make a journalist’s job easier and more effective, as a way to buoy the industry. The CAREER award will further this mission.

“The grant will allow me to pursue several projects in my Computational Journalism Lab to better understand the efficiency and effectiveness of computational story discovery tools in domains ranging from investigative and social journalism to computational factchecking,” Diakopoulos says. “I’m excited that the grant will also support my efforts to increase the data and computational literacy of journalists so that practitioners will be better equipped to operate in a data- and algorithm-driven media landscape.”

This grant will fund his research in three particular areas:

  • to develop a conceptual user-centered design framework that reflects journalists’ needs and enables the creation of tools to assist them
  • to innovate new tools to support investigations, fact checking, and social journalism
  • to evaluate the efficacy and efficiency of these new tools in producing quality journalism.

Each project will work toward the goal of using computational techniques to decrease the cost and increase the scale and impact of reporting—all developments that could lead to higher quality and more comprehensive and original journalistic output that helps buttress the fortunes of news publications. One of the projects would also arm journalists with the tools to investigate algorithms and understand how and where they’re being used in government, industry, and beyond.

Though the common fear regarding automation in any industry is eventual job losses, Diakopoulos sees algorithms as a way to create opportunity. Forward-thinking news organizations are increasingly hiring reporters and editors that specialize in this field, as well as programmers and data specialists to manage the technology. Human reporters, he says, will not and cannot be replaced.

“If you think about all the tasks a reporter has to do over the course of the day, maybe there are some that can be automated or outsourced to AI,” he says, noting possible robocalls for box scores or earnings reports or their use in social media audience engagement. “But there’s not a bot out there that can do an adversarial interview, or gain rapport with a source, or understand an emotional reaction. Information gathering is highly dependent on social skill.”

Diakopoulos, who joined the School of Communication in Fall 2017, calls Northwestern “an ideal interdisciplinary environment for this type of work.” He frequently collaborates with his colleagues in communication studies, computer science, and the Medill School of Journalism, Integrated Marketing, and Communications.

“The campus community is outstanding for computational journalism,” he says.

Northwestern is an institutional leader in faculty receiving CAREER Awards: in 2017 (the last numbers available), it boasted the fifth highest number of awards won in the last decade among all U.S. universities. It is highly unusual—and exceptional—for a communication studies department to have seven faculty winners.

The School of Communication’s six other CAREER award-winning faculty are: Associate professor Anne Marie Piper; associate professor Darren Gergle; professor Michelle Shumate; assistant professor Brent Hecht; professor and associate dean of graduate programs, Madhu Reddy; and professor Leslie DeChurch. Nick Diakopoulos’ CAREER grant comes from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Information & Intelligent Systems in the Cyber-Human Systems program.

Diakopoulos’ book, Automating the News: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Media, will be published by Harvard University Press in late spring.