'I would question the ethical integrity of an editorial team that answers to Mark Zuckerberg': A former member of Facebook's Trending team weighs in on the company's latest effort to tackle news

'I would question the ethical integrity of an editorial team that answers to Mark Zuckerberg': A former member of Facebook's Trending team weighs in on the company's latest effort to tackle news
  • Facebook is hiring full-time journalists to pick top stories for a planned news section, News Tab, in a shift from its erstwhile Trending section, which was staffed by contractors. Theywere fired in 2016 after Gizmodo reported thatthe team was ideologically driven.
  • Business Insider talked to Adam Schrader, a former member of the Trending team, about his experience there. Schrader has not worked with Facebook for nearly three years and has no direct knowledge of Facebook’s plans.
  • Schrader said he thinks Facebook should operate like a traditional newsroom, with checks and balances and fact-checking.
  • Facebook’s Campbell Brown said Facebook would apply lessons from Trending. Facebook has said that the news tab would use a new algorithm and that its journalists wouldbe independent of the employees who are signing publishers up to provide their news to the section.
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Facebook just announced its forthcoming news section, News Tab, would have a team of journalists along with being algorithm-driven. The team is expected to number fewer than 10 and report to Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships.

Read More: Facebook is hiring a team of journalists to staff its news tab but will rely mostly on algorithms

The plan represents a shift from Facebook’s erstwhile Trending section, which was staffed by contractors. Theywere fired in 2016 after Gizmodo reported thatthe team was ideologically driven. (Facebook’s own investigation concluded there wasno evidence of wrongdoing.)

One of those contractors wasAdam Schrader, who was on the team from May to September 2016, where he picked top stories for the section.

Business Insider asked Schrader to reflect on the new section, his experience on Trending, and what Facebook should do differently this time. To be clear, Schrader has not worked with Facebook for nearly three years and doesn’t have direct knowledge of Facebook’s plans.

Facebook, for its part, has said that the news tab would use a new algorithm, and that the team of journalists vetting the stories wouldbe independent of the employees who are in charge of signing publishers up to provide their news to the section.

“News Tab is a very different product for us — a destination for top stories and news you care about,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, told Business Insider. “We are building this with close publisher collaboration. We’ve learned a lot from Trending and we are applying those lessons.”

Tanya Dua: What was your reaction when you heard the news?

Adam Schrader: I mean, it’s like a big fucking ‘I told you so.’ There’s no way algorithms [by themselves] were ever going to be a good option, because they just don’t understand the nuances of human language yet. [Facebook has said that the newtab will be mostly algorithmically-driven.] I hope they listen to some of the feedback they’ve heard over the years and put that into practice. People need to know what their curation practices will entail.

Dua: Facebook wants to hire seasoned journalists now. What was the makeup of the Trending team?

Schrader: There were 25 people or so on the team, and it was broken down into curators and editors. It was shift-based and rotations were round the clock, so there were maybe eight curators at a time. I was the youngest person on the team. I was 26, had already worked as an editor at The Dallas Morning News, as a breaking news freelancer for the New York Daily News, and had a masters degree in journalism. The rest of the team was similarly credentialed, and we at least two had PhDs in media. Most people had worked for five or more years at places including NBC, Mashable, New York magazine, Time, and others. We were not inexperienced.

Dua: What do you think will be different from last time?

Schrader: Hopefully this can help amplify important and legitimate news from publishers. Last time, the public was just so taken aback by the fact that humans were even curating trending news to begin with that it seemed like trickery — as if humans had so much power over the content they were seeing. That was made worse when fake news and Russian interference became public knowledge.

Dua: Do you think the news section will help Facebook’s credibility?

Schrader: I expect it will probably receive similar backlash because people are generally averse to a major company like Facebook that already knows so many people’s personal information feeding them the news. To help with trust, they may even have to hire people from less legitimate places like Breitbart.

Dua: What else should Facebook do?

Schrader: They should have something like ‘This topic was curated by xyz,’ and allow people to see biographical information about where that person worked. And they should make them full-time employees instead of contractors, because that just looked sleazy to everyone. [The roles Facebook is advertising for noware full-time.]

Dua: What do you think ofreports that Facebook is offering news publishers as much as $3 million a year for three years to license headlines and previews of their articles?

Schrader: I don’t think publishers really have an option but to keep going along with what Facebook wants to try, even though tech companies have injured journalism by hurting traditional advertising, taking huge revenue streams from newspapers, and causing or allowing problems like the Russian interference debacle. Hopefully, this effort just helps the public access a variety of articles, including from smaller local publications, without further damaging journalistic credibility and news revenue.

Dua: Do you have any advice for people joining Facebook’s news team?

Schrader: Hopefully they’re given true autonomy, similar to how a news organization has a firewall between business and editorial. [Facebook’s] best course of action would be to operate like a traditional newsroom, where there are checks and balances and fact-checking throughout the editorial process. If not, they probably just shouldn’t take the job, or realize they’re entering a culture that’s very different from what they know. I would question the ethical integrity of an editorial team that answers to Mark Zuckerberg, or whose processes are not clear and methodical.

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