We get serious about algorithms

“More and more, we’re getting comments from NPR One listeners along the lines of ‘I don’t want personalization, I want the news.’ My answer is, that’s exactly what we are using personalization algorithms to do.”

Algorithms will take their place as editorial tools that support the ethics and values of journalism — not just ways of getting people to listen more, read more, and share our stuff more.

Sure it’s easy to give people what they want in the moment and keep them glued to our content. Just like we humans love a big vat of caramelized popcorn, who doesn’t like stories that represent how we “want” to see the world? Ooo, yummy. At least until you feel sick. This last year of fake news and false narratives brought a wave of nausea to the public and to the media about the dark side of the promise of personalization algorithms.

More and more, we’re getting comments from NPR One listeners along the lines of “I don’t want personalization, I want the news.” My answer is, that’s exactly what we are using personalization algorithms to do.

These algorithms are our modern editorial tools. We need them to control the distribution of our stories.

At NPR One, we use them to make sure our listeners are getting the most up-to-date and relevant stories every time they listen. What do you use yours for? As editorial leaders, we should have a hand in deciding how we will use personalization and to what end. This is the year to be clear about what that end is and make sure our audiences know.

We can bring the same editorial integrity and values to this tool as we do any other tool of the journalistic trade. NPR, like The Washington Post and even Snap, have started using algorithms and personalization to make sure people are getting an expansive view. Instead of only giving people more of the things they like, we can use personalization to bring them multiple points of view or even updates and corrections to things they’ve seen or heard. It’s heartening to see more calls for being responsible and transparent about how we use personalization algorithms so that we hang onto the public’s trust in journalism.

These tools are only going to be a larger force in how we deliver our stories, and this is the year where there should be a wider focus on using personalization to inform, educate, and foster common understanding.

Tamar Charney is managing editor of NPR One.

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