Facebook's newsroom sounds remarkably unremarkable

It sounds like Facebook is running a regular newsroom.

Which is sort of exciting but also not.

A new report from Michael Nunez at Gizmodo out Monday morning said that according to former news curators at Facebook, stories with a conservative tilt were censored from the company’s trending news module.

Here are the key graphs from Nunez’s report (emphasis mine):

“Depending on who was on shift, things would be blacklisted or trending,” said the former curator. This individual asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of retribution from the company. The former curator is politically conservative, one of a very small handful of curators with such views on the trending team. “I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognise the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”

The former curator was so troubled by the omissions that they kept a running log of them at the time; this individual provided the notes to Gizmodo. Among the deep-sixed or suppressed topics on the list: former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was accused by Republicans of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative groups; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; popular conservative news aggregator the Drudge Report; Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL who was murdered in 2013; and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder. “I believe it had a chilling effect on conservative news,” the former curator said.

Other sources Nunez spoke with denied there was a conscious effort by the organisation to move what news was featured towards one end of the political spectrum or another. Facebook could not immediately be reached for comment on this story.

Monday’s report also builds off Nunez’s previous work, published last week, which indicated that the trending module is at best a mix of curated stories and things that are actually popular.

(Of course when Facebook announced the trending module it said, “As with other features, expect continuous improvements from us over time.” So, these are the improvements. Or not.)

And while the media community is rightly obsessed with just what goes on at Facebook these days, my biggest takeaway from Nunez’s work is that Facebook is going through the normal and never-ending growth pains of any news organisation.

The company is grappling with questions like, “What do readers want?” “What are readers reading?” “What do we think is news?” “Is this headline working?” “Is this headline fair?” “Is this even a story?” and so on.

In other words, normal stuff.

I think in some corners of the media Facebook is viewed as a benevolent dictator controlling some unknown future, demanding all of the content and merely promising “the algorithm” and (maybe!) the eyeballs in return. Also possibly some money.

But it seems like part of the Facebook news experience has involved humans, which has sort of made it messy in all the conventional ways that news judgment tends to be.

Facebook’s newsroom, it seems, is grappling with the inherent tension of delivering something like the truth to readers while also being fair to the source material.

But the only thing to really be worked up about here is that objectivity is supposed to exist either inside the newsroom or, in the case of Facebook, inside the algorithm (though, again, Facebook didn’t exactly promise this).

Though as my John-Kasich-voting colleague Josh Barro argued back on primary day in New York:

Journalists are humans, and they have opinions — especially about topics on which they are deeply informed, as political journalists hopefully are about politics. You should be very sceptical of someone who manages to learn a lot about the government and yet claims not to have strong views about what it should do. This person either is concealing something or is stupid.

The overarching point here is that objectivity, whether it comes from an algorithm or the mind of a young, Ivy League-educated news curator, is a false construct. There is no objectivity but merely claims in its direction.

I’m certain there are members of the Business Insider newsroom who believe we cover certain politicians with certain political priors too harshly or with kid gloves, depending.

And these folks exist in newsrooms across the country and the world.

Even at Facebook.

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