Statement approved by the Council for Mass Media in Finland (Julkisen sanan neuvosto) in its meeting on 30 October 2019
The ethical implications related to the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence have generated a great deal of public discussion in recent times. There have been calls on those utilizing algorithms to be open and transparent as concerns the data they collect from their users and the principles they use to highlight certain content.
Media outlets that fall under the regulatory guidelines of the Council for Mass Media in Finland also utilize algorithms, including so called news bots, election bots and targeted content. New technological innovations offer an opportunity for better and more efficient journalism.
The purpose of this statement is to define the use of algorithmic tools as part of journalistic work and to assure the public that media outlets act responsibly and transparently while using algorithms.
Scope of application
It is not practical to address in detail all the different ways algorithms are used in one statement. This statement in particular takes a stand on how media outlets should inform their audiences about the use of:
News automation – for example so called news bots and other algorithmic tools that generate and publish journalistic content, such as texts and infographics, automatically.
Personalization, in other words, the method used for targeting contents differently for different people – for example, a customized start page of a web site or a mobile application and other services such as lists of recommended articles, which are customized based on the user’s past activities.
Editorial office should retain journalistic decision-making power
The Council states that the use of news automation and targeted content always constitutes a journalistic choice. It includes choices about what to publish, with what emphasis and to whom. This is at the core of journalistic decision-making power.
The guidelines for journalists stipulate that the decisions concerning the content of media should be based on journalistic principles and the power to make such decisions should not be surrendered to any party outside the editorial office. Consequently, such decision-making power should also not be transferred to makers of algorithms outside the editorial office. The editorial staff – ultimately the chief editor – bears the responsibility for the effects of algorithms on journalistic content.
The Council states that media outlets should have sufficient understanding of the effect of algorithmic tools on content. For example, if a media outlet purchases a tool developed externally, the outlet must examine and approve of its central operational principles and be able to react, should problems arise.
The Council reminds that the guidelines for journalists apply to all journalistic work. Media outlets must therefore ensure that their digital service developers also adhere to the guidelines, when they independently make decisions that influence journalistic content.
The public has the right to know about news automation and personalization
It is important for the credibility of journalism that the public considers the operations of media outlets to be transparent. The Council states that the public has the right to know, if journalistic content is recommended or targeted to different users in different ways based on user data. The guidelines for journalists also require that effort should be made to collect the information openly and that the source should be mentioned if using information published by other parties. The Council therefore issues the following recommendations.
Recommendation on how to mark news automation
Media outlets are obligated to disclose to the public if journalistic content published by them has, to an essential extent, been generated and published automatically. The Council recommends that in such cases media outlets disclose the use of automation and the source of published information alongside the content.
Regarding articles which are both automatically generated and automatically published/updated, the Council recommends that the following addendum is inserted next to the articles: “This is an automatically generated/updated article and the source of information is [source].”
Recommendation on how to mark personalization
If media outlets target content to different users in different ways, they are obligated to inform the public openly about the practice and the collection of data for the targeting purposes. The Council recommends that, if a significant amount of content on a given page view is targeted content based on user data, targeting should be disclosed in a manner that requires little effort by the user to find the information. The information should also be presented in an understandable way.
This statement by the Council for Mass Media is the first of its kind addressing the use of algorithms. Digital development in the industry continues and the Council may approach the issue from other angles in future.
The Council reminds that the power of journalism in supporting a democratic and fact-based society is founded on the diverse viewpoints about the world it offers. The Council recommends that media outlets use algorithmic tools in a manner that safeguards the public’s access to diverse information about the world in future as well.