iSchool Associate Dean for Research Kevin Crowston receives a $1.5M NSF grant through the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier (FW-HTF), a program investing in research exploring challenges and opportunities for the future of work. 

The grant will fund a project exploring the technologies journalists use, the technology’s impact, and how technology can influence the journalism industry. The project is in conjunction with Associate Professor Keren Henderson from the Newhouse School of Public Communications, two Columbia University colleagues, and a Stevens Institute of Technology colleague. The three participating universities are splitting the grant, with $721,700 going to Syracuse. The official start date for the research project is October 1, 2021. 

Over the last couple of years, the capabilities of technology have increased. In many industries, the advancements in artificial intelligence and automation have led to more streamlined processes, reduced human error, and saved employees time from manual tasks. However, more creative industries, like journalism, are still trying to incorporate AI and automation in a way that makes sense for their work. 

“I’ve been studying impacts of technology on work basically for my entire career,” says Crowston. “I think this is an interesting project because journalism is certifiably important and yet, so beleaguered because of changes in the technology landscape. The way people get news has shifted, and it has wiped out advertising revenue, which has historically funded journalism. I don’t know if we can do anything about those bigger macroeconomic problems, but at least trying to do something, in terms of technology, for a profession that is necessary and important, I think is interesting.”

Henderson’s interest in the project comes from her previous work in the journalism industry. “As a former local TV news producer, I am looking forward to helping journalists find innovative ways to tell important stories,” says Henderson.

Crowston and Henderson will perform fieldwork, visiting various newsrooms to understand how journalists utilize technologies and automation. After gaining a better understanding of how these technologies and automation fit in journalism, Crowston and Henderson will explore how technology and automation can accommodate the needs of journalists to improve their processes. Meanwhile, the Columbia and Stevens partners will develop new systems for the newsrooms to try. 

One use of technology and automation of interest is natural language generation, like GPT-3, to write stories. The system learns snippets of texts from the internet to create the copy. While these systems can make fluent stories, they don’t check for accuracy. In a job like journalism, where reporters pride themselves on the accuracy, the eloquent text isn’t as crucial as factually correct stories. 

“Our thought with this grant was that complete automation doesn’t seem feasible, and it also doesn’t seem desirable. Yet, you want to do something that’s going to help journalists deal with the pressures they face in getting their work done,” says Crowston. “That’s what we want to explore. What sorts of technologies are going to fit into the work the way that journalists do it?”