The Relevance of Computer Science in Journalism

Letter to the Editor

In many ways, the diversity of computer science is unmatched. Once an inchoate and arcane subject sidelined by the much more sought-after ‘economics,’ not only has it supplanted it in popularity, but also advanced humanity and greatly uprooted and channeled the plebeian problems of yore into the archives of history. Ubiquitous in nature, limitless in applications, scarcely ever can anything better and so disparate be contrived that so much as holds a candle to it. We have,­­ as a consequence, ­­reached a point in time where it is anodyne to deliberate its commingling with other academic disciplines; but nonetheless, conscientiously remain apathetic to even advancing the very idea of juxtaposition today.

I speak here of the confounding bubble of conservativeness that unconsciously deters the fixtures in their realms from acquiescing in this simple and hackneyed adage that ‘technology is a way of life’ and the gateway to technology is ‘computer science.’ Learning to harness it to power innovation is key to amelioration. For example, music composers rely heavily on patterns for their pieces, which computer algorithms can help create (the University of California-Santa Cruz’s “Making the Electrons Dance” is a paragon of this intermingling). The very clustering nature of data science has so often produced such quixotic results in fields like medicine (John Snow’s cholera epiphany) and meteorology (by safeguarding lives from natural catastrophes) that it has been rightly proclaimed as the oil of the twenty-first century by the Economist.

Today, computer science singularly holds the ability to perfectly fit into almost any sphere of life and magnify its influence, but the need to do so is so far suppressed that it is hardly ever brought up. So, as an engineering intern at the Washington Post, I have taken the cue to underscore the imperative relevance of it in one of these — journalism — and by doing so, also presented the case for adding a course across all universities nationwide that rigorously combines the two. The purpose of this opinion piece, however, is to not inveigh or call out the caustic lopsidedness in opinions harbored by the many celebrated non­-tech industries of today, but to promulgate the need to nix the hem and haw that stymies innovation worldwide in these domains.

It is a known fact that with every passing year, journalism continues to rot into oblivion. Once a surefooted pinnacle of mass communication, it is now a closely held circus picketed over meager trifles and controlled by affluent conglomerates. In the article, “Does Journalism Have a Future?,” The New Yorker estimates that in the years between 1970 and 2016, roughly “five hundred or so dailies went out of business.” Amid all the news outlets to have somehow scaled past this wall of doom, the transition into internet and mobile is what propelled them to relevance in the modern world. Furthermore, that this above-abysmal plummeting is scarcely appalling is a not only a beacon of further decline, but also a desperate and damning reminder of making computer science commonplace. The use of a bot today in journalism is only one such exceptional example of computer science’s overarching influence.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have all become household names that can leverage their storied history of credibility to buttress their prospect of survival; but, what of the millions of news outlets that both cultivate talent and convey singular mass media repertoire but remain financially hampered to promote it? If these traditional media outlets have to stay relevant in the acme of technology, they must unconditionally embrace and champion computer science, and the medium to do so must be imbued in the prospective computer scientists and journalists in their overwrought college-­going years rather than later. Designing a course that perfectly subsumes computer science and journalism is not entirely an exercise in futility. Many leading universities today, like Northwestern and Columbia, are popularizing this growing fusion to market these courses as part of their dual-major programs. To what extent has it worked is debatable, but the need to standardize this across colleges nationwide is not.

As we continue ruminating on the possibilities of artificial intelligence reshaping society, it has slowly started to become inevitably important that we also start making these courses non­exclusive and general purpose so that almost any audience can be equipped with the resources from the outset in their careers to not only disrupt their respective realms of work when the time comes, but also motivate research on applications of the original technologies they learned to leverage to do so.

Aditya Saxena is a senior at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and an engineering intern at the Washington Post.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.