True objectivity in journalism is impossible to achieve, yet its pursuit remains a yardstick by which great reporting is measured.
This story is definitely not objective, according to VeriCrypt, a company that has created a new technology driven by artificial intelligence to flag sensational words, phrases and headlines.
inewsource is excited to announce it is the first news organization in the country to utilize this bias-detecting software and will help VeriCrypt refine and improve its technology on an ongoing basis.
Objective writing is difficult for the best reporters, with “loaded” words sometimes finding their way past even the most scrupulous editors. Here’s an example: Think of what “she claims” evokes in comparison to “she says.”
When that happens, readers lose trust.
While inewsource prides itself on its opinion-free reporting, we can always do better, and that’s where VeriCrypt comes in. Reporters and editors can use the tool to see whether it detects bias in a story prior to publication, which gives the chance to rephrase or delete that content before hitting publish.
“We are constantly pushing the boundaries of transparency to share documents and other work products with readers,” said Lorie Hearn, inewsource’s executive director and editor. “It’s all intended to build credibility and trust. VeriCrypt is a valuable tool that can set a newsroom apart — in a good or a bad way — if you’re brave enough to use it.”
VeriCrypt was founded at a San Diego Hackathon last year by University of California San Diego students Tamara Zubatiy and Grant Nelson, along with Robert Park, a graduate of Texas A&M. The three specialize in machine learning, neural computation and mechanical engineering, and took first prize at the competition for their use of blockchain technology to help guide first responders in a crisis.
Over the next six months, the team trained their software to read and analyze stories about cryptocurrency because those stories are typically either legitimate or fake, without much gray area in between, Zubatiy said.
They then honed their algorithm by adding content from more than 30,000 news providers to their data collection and analysis, and trained artificial intelligence to ferret out what was objective from sensational among political news.
This was in part driven by “a compound problem of sensationalism and polarization,” which Zubatiy said she noticed in the last U.S. election: Intentionally sensationalized news stories generated clicks and views but not necessarily accuracy or truth.
She’s not wrong.
“It’s unsafe when you read sensational content because of biology – you can’t not react to it,” Zubatiy said. VeriCrypt will inform people when they are being manipulated.
The kicker? The software could easily be used to generate the most sensational (and clickable) content imaginable, if someone were to use it in the opposite way.
So “we wanted to align ourselves with news providers that have missions that we could support,” Zubatiy said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove that somebody actually has less biased content and highlight those people?”
VeriCrypt incorporated in August and approached inewsource shortly after. The team then ran inewsource’s stories through their software.
The results showed Zubatiy that inewsource’s content “was statistically less sensational, or more objective, than the national average of the content that we had aggregated up to that point from the other 30,000 sources,” she said. “We could clearly see that.”
The team knew the software worked after it flagged as biased a short series of inewsource stories that detailed tips for using public records – along with each reporter’s favorite personal (subjective) stories about accessing those records (Side note: The only thing inewsource openly advocates for is government transparency).
VeriCrypt and inewsource will be working closely over the next several months to help perfect the service. Zubatiy and colleagues are also raising money through a “friends and family” round of accredited investors, hoping to raise $500,000 to fund operations over the next six months.
“This is a critical window for us – before the election,” she said, adding that they’re also on the lookout for angel investors in San Diego.
Zubatiy hopes that when they open up VeriCrypt to new clients, those will consist of other nonprofits and investigative newsrooms with similar missions.
VeriCrypt will also be doing research at the San Diego Supercomputer Center’s BlockLAB to build out and test future versions of the software.
Aside from detecting bias, VeriCrypt is working to create an indestructible archive of news stories from around the world that, once published, cannot be altered in any way.