What is sometimes lost when thinking about journalism and news reporting — especially when it comes to stories that involve or are intertwined with important societal narratives — is that reporting is an art form. As Pablo Picasso said, although it helps us realize the truth, “art is a lie.” One could also make the argument that not only is journalism a lie, but it is a barbaric lie. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer, liked to say about his art: Photographing someone is appalling and “barbaric.” When journalists construct a story quoting a set of sources, they are performing an act of barbarism of their own.

Of course, this is an especially acerbic way of viewing a profession that is usually referred to in much nobler terms. I do so to highlight one point: As with other art forms, we like or trust a certain news story — not because it is true — but because it helps us make sense of the world. The “4th Estate,” an expression to describe the media or “The Press,” has been helping the public make sense of the world for almost as long as the printing press has been around. According to Thomas Carlyle, the expression was coined by Edmund Burke in a parliamentary debate in 1787.

For almost all its history, the 4th Estate has been viewed as a powerful institution, a critical pillar of the realm — at least as far as Western Democracies are concerned. In many ways, this institution has been exhaustively studied in the 20th century, but it has never been parsed and analyzed according to its own constructive dictates — i.e., deconstructing the sources that the media uses to construct their own projected truths.

Why is the Project Important?

In essence, this is what the 4th Estate Project, which we launched in February, does. We deconstruct journalists’ use of sources and statements, and make visible the patterns that exist within their stories. In other words, we are laying bare the ingredients of journalists’ stories. As we do so, we are performing a service that has the potential to highlight how professional journalism is necessarily different from social media, and
to reinvigorate the societal appreciation for an independent and professional 4th Estate.

By making the ingredients of news available to the public in real time, we introduce a level of transparency into the journalist-reader exchange that will be required in establishing trust for the readers of tomorrow — readers for whom social media has transformed how they engage and
interact with the world. “Authenticity” is now revered by the proponents of new media, but it is not the same thing nor does it carry the same weight as authority. Authority requires context as well as multiple and repeatable access. Privileged access combined with getting out of the chair and getting onto an actual “beat,” creates an information product that is usually unattainable by social media practitioners. That is not to say that traditional journalists do not make mistakes and betray their authority, but it happens rarely as compared to in the social media realm.

Another problem with access is more about perception than reality, but it should be mentioned nonetheless. Many people believe that power tends to corrupt. Of course, this is debatable, but 4th Estate Project data, widely disseminated, provides a counterbalance to this access, by empowering the reader to see the data behind the stories she is consuming.

Early Success

In the first four active months of its existence, the 4th Estate Project has received coverage in such diverse media outlets as Newsweek, Washington Post, Slate, New York Times, Le Monde and Gannett’s Detroit Free Press. The stories in this coverage have largely focused on our infographic series that has covered the “Gender Gap in Media coverage,“ (see below) the “Liberal Media Bias,” an analysis of “Paul Ryan’s Right Stuff“ and “Republican Unity.”

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Our infographic series has also experienced great social amplification powered by sites such as the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Upworthy, The Daily What, Feministing, and Jezebel. There have also been brief profile pieces by the Chicago Tribune, Tech President, and the Poynter Institute. To fully understand the 4th Estate
Project, it is important to understand the history of the foundational technology.

The Foundation of the Technology

In the mid 1990s, Bryan Rich worked for Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a Washington D.C.-based NGO focused on conflict-resolution projects around the world. One of SFCG’s projects was Radio Ijambo, a project in post-genocide Burundi. Rich was given the project because he had past experience in managing news bureaus in conflict zones such as Macedonia (in the former Yugoslavia).

Radio Ijambo’s mission was to provide a trusted news source to help rebuild civilian society in post-genocide Burundi. Through the course of the genocide, the media in both Burundi and Rwanda had essentially become propaganda tools of the two ethnic sides in the conflict — the Hutus and Tutsis. Reports of fake massacres in specific places were as prevalent as reports of real massacres — and were used by the combatants to spark violence against their opponents in the conflict.

One of the original organizing principles of Radio Ijambo was to have equal representation of Hutus and Tutsis among the journalists. The people chosen to be journalists were generally young, smart and ready to play their small part in rebuilding civil society. However, they were also inexperienced.

In the beginning, the Hutu journalists were using only Hutu sources, and correspondingly the Tutsi journalists were using only Tutsis as sources in their stories. In order to correct this practice, Rich analyzed the journalists’ stories via simple Excel spreadsheets. He used the results of these spreadsheets to clearly document and correct the sourcing behavior of the journalists. Rich used the system to reward those staff members who were producing quality, well-sourced stories with prime assignments.

Due to both the simplicity of the feedback system and the desire of the staff to improve as journalists, Radio Ijambo’s reporting improved dramatically. The station grew rapidly, won multiple international awards, and became a legitimate source of information for wire services around the world. Rich formed close friendships and working relationships with a number of Radio Ijambo alumni, including Alexis Sinduhije, with whom Rich filmed a documentary, “Breaking the Codes,” that captured participants in the genocide confessing to atrocities. The station’s success also enabled an expansion of the project’s programming and a rebranding as Studio Ijambo. In 2008, Sinduhije was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the World by Christiane Amanpour. Following the success of Radio Ijambo and the completion of the film, Rich won a 2000 Nieman Fellowship at Harvard’s School of Journalism. It was during his year at Harvard that he started exploring the automation of the media-monitoring methodology that he used at Radio Ijambo.

Automating the Methodology

From the start of his fellowship, Rich knew he wanted to spend his time further developing the sourcing feedback system. He turned to an old friend, me, to help him work on the automation of the concept. Rich and I had a long friendship, and we have a history of working successfully together. A few years before Radio Ijambo, Rich and I worked on another SFCG project. I had produced “A Paz e Que Povo Chama
(an Angolan Peace Song), as part of a far-reaching Angolan project for SFCG. The song was a collaboration of a group of Angolan ex-pat musicians living in Portugal, including the stars Bonga, Paulo Flores, Filipe Mukenga
and a host of others. In the interim between the Angolan project and Radio Ijambo, I had switched from a focus on music production to software production.

During the course of his Nieman fellowship, Rich started working with me on the automated algorithms and parsing routines that encapsulated the media-monitoring principles used at Radio Ijambo. The process of automation led to further innovation, and it became clear much detailed analysis could be harvested from such a system.

Success with an Enterprise Version of the Platform

An important benefit of the methodology was that it allowed for easy portability across different languages. Organizations with the need to analyze risk and media exposure across cultures and languages were especially interested in the data outputs of the technology. Subsequently, GNI was started to work with these organizations.

GNI has been successful as an enterprise solution providing critical information on media patterns and influential behaviors working for organizations such as the U.S. Defense Department, the International Olympic Committee, Citibank, Publicis, Burson Marstellar, Rethink Media, Dubai Ports World and Americans Elect. GNI has executed more than 100 large-scale projects for exposed multinational organizations operating across multiple cultural divides.

Within GNI, there has always been interest in creating a citizen-facing implementation of the technology. We have always known a presidential election cycle would provide the opportunity to make an impression on the public consciousness, just like Politico and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight did in 2008.

In the autumn of 2011, we started preparing for a launch of the 4th Estate Project, by assembling an operational team and clearly defining the project parameters, taxonomy and operating principles. By the time the GOP primary had started in earnest in November, we were operational with our media collection and analysis. In December, we began work on our website that would serve as the public-facing repository of our data — something that we had never had before. All of GNI’s presentation work had been distributed to clients as either part of our enterprise product dashboard or in the form of customized reports.

The 4th Estate Project’s Public Launch

In February of 2012, we executed a soft launch of our website. The website was a daily posting of the visual representation of the social influence of media and newsmakers concerning the presidential election, specifically the GOP primary candidates. By the end of April, the GOP primary was all but done, and the general election race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was beginning to get underway. In late May 2012, after using the GOP primary and soft launch as a way to test the processes surrounding the distribution of our content and our editorial flow, we launched our infographic series. Our intuition that this series would generate great interest and excitement in our site, platform and data has proven to be correct. The response to the 4th Estate Project over the first four months has been extremely encouraging as evidenced by the media coverage mentioned earlier.

After years of working with commercial clients, it has been extremely gratifying to be able to share our unique data and insights with the general public. Meanwhile, the social amplification of our infographics has played a crucial part in the distribution of our data to a wider audience. In other words, the distribution of our data and insights has been a bottom-up, not a top-down affair. We seeded our infographics and data within the social media sphere, and in response, the traditional press has picked up stories. We have consistently seen this information flow in regards to both our infographic series and our daily posts.

Transforming Traditional Journalism

Since our success has been more of a bottom-up than top-down affair, it might seem surprising that we see ourselves in the role of defenders of traditional journalism. We appreciate social media, but we don’t think it will wholly supplant traditional journalism. Instead, we believe social media’s effect on traditional journalism will ultimately be understood as being a critical catalyst in the transformation of the institution of the 4th Estate from a closed and mostly opaque network to one of openness and transparency. We would not go so far as to refer to journalism as “sacred rhetoric,” but we do believe in the civic importance and power of good journalism practiced in its traditional form. It is true that the journalism profession needs to recognize transparency and data replication as foundational elements of the future of news, and the social media universe has been instrumental in dictating this recognition, but it is also very important to recognize the survival of authority as a critical component in the future makeup of news. We believe the future of news will involve an intriguing and delicate balance between this authority and transparency.

The 4th Estate Project’s technology platform, within a public context, is transformational and highly relevant to this balance. By laying bare the ingredients and associated influence that comprise the raw elements of journalistic stories, we believe that 4th Estate Project technology can play an important role in supporting this balance which will, in turn, support the health of the future 4th Estate. Our technology instills a level of transparency in the journalist-reader exchange that allows the reader to trust journalists and their enhanced levels of access that, in turn, supports the overall health of the journalist-reader relationship. And this trust and pact is what we believe will come to define the demarcation between social media content and traditional journalism.

What’s Next

As I write this, we are in the culminating moments of the 2012 presidential campaign. Our project has come to be closely identified with the campaign. However, the project has always been intended to have a life cycle far beyond just the campaign. We recognized the campaign as a perfect foil for the release of our technology into the
public sphere, and our success to date has been a magnificent validation of that. We are deep in the planning stages of designing what we will be when we grow up — after the election. We will, of course, at some point expand our coverage into other vertical high-impact domains such as Energy Policy, Healthcare, and the Financial Markets in some form. But what we are truly excited about is expanding in highly specific ways into these other domains. For example, rather than analyzing Energy in an overly general fashion, we will analyze Energy as a domain that includes multiple interconnected domains such as “Energy Sources,” “Climate Change” and “Extraction.” Eventually, we envision the 4th Estate Project as a repository that spans all of the important issues and stories of the day, and allows a trusted journalist-reader relationship to flourish in the brave new transparent world of today.

Michael Howe is the technical co-founder of the 4th Estate Project, and the architect of the underlying technology. Michael has a long record of managing the development of disruptive technologies. 
Before developing the 4th Estate technology, Michael led first of their kind projects in the fields of monitoring social networks (YouDiligence); telecommunications reverse auctions (Last Mile Connections); micro array image analysis (Qiagen); personalized medicine (20/20 Gene Systems) ; and 3D visualization (Global Haptics). 

Michael has led and overseen commercial development projects and software deployments for Ford Motors, FedEx, Exxon/Mobil, Boeing, Citibank, International Olympic Committee, Americans Elect, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Overseas & US Vote Foundation, AARP, Dealer Dot Com, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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This article originally appeared on The Journalism Foundation, an independent charitable organization that promotes free and independent journalism throughout the world by supporting projects which have a positive effect on people’s lives. Find us on Twitter @4journalism, or follow us on our Facebook page

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