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Logan McDonald for BuzzFeed Tech

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How BuzzFeed’s Tech Team Helps Journalists Report On Technology With Authority

Reporter: Is anyone around to take a quick look at some code on codepen and help me understand what it does?

This question — and many, many others like it — arose from an initiative called “The Tech + News Working Group,” a BuzzFeed News collaboration between reporters and nearly every role across the Tech department — including SREs, SWEs, data scientists and product managers.
The BuzzFeed Tech team is afforded “7% time,” or half a day each week, to learn something new. For those of us on the Tech side of the working group, that 7% time is dedicated to bringing our technical expertise to the newsroom.

A primary value of BuzzFeed Tech is fostering an experimental and collaborative workplace; One way that’s come to life is through the Tech + News Working Group. The foundation for the group was laid by former BuzzFeed Tech SRE Sri Ray, who provided countless acts of support to the newsroom throughout his time here. Reporters began reaching out to people on the tech and IT teams to help understand terminology, dig into tips, or verify the security of a file they had received from tipsters. The partnership allowed the Tech team to learn from reporters and consider the wider implications of our work. In turn, as insiders in the tech industry, the newsroom benefitted from our tools and perspective while reporting on technology, security, and business stories.

Like other award-winning newsrooms, BuzzFeed News has a dedicated data journalism team that uses data and programming to aid in their reporting. But a year ago, we realized that there is a place for the Tech team to help with reporting, too.

We decided to expand and formalize our collaboration, with an open Slack channel that includes members from both our Tech and News organizations to support day-to-day consulting on stories and work on larger ongoing projects, along with a new mission statement:

Our mission [for the Tech News Working Group] is to act as an elevating force for the newsroom’s work through guidance and assistance using our technical skills. Our News team at BuzzFeed strives to shine light on the most important issues facing us today. Currently, this means a growing focus on the impact of the internet and technology on a range of topics covered by News. As a team of technical experts, we are uniquely equipped to assist in this realm.

Tubeviewer article

Since then, we’ve worked with the newsroom to develop reporting tools, including a project called Tubeviewer which took us down the YouTube rabbit hole. Through Tubeviewer, we found that the Up Next algorithm occasionally pushes users toward hyperpartisan videos that include divisive, conspiratorial, and sometimes hateful content. Tubeviewer simulates the viewing experience of real humans watching YouTube videos given a certain set of search terms. Turn it on, walk away, and come back to a full picture of your viewing experience. We’ve used tools like this to audit algorithms across tech platforms. We’ve also developed bots that send digests of patent information to Slack or collect data from filing systems like NYSCEF. We’ve developed patterns for doing network analysis through Wireshark and done visualizations for articles with the data.

We’ve received hundreds of requests ranging from assistance with finding data from a website to explaining how authentication tokens are used:

Reporter: working on a story about token based authentication vulnerability in a video game that uses google/fb sign on — and looking for someone to comment on the limits/risks of using token based authentication in general

Sometimes we get requests for help with something that would require a lot of manual labor, were it not for a quick and easy tech solution:

Reporter: this is a weird request
that i apologize for
but can someone count the number of stories under this tag
if there is an easy way to do that…

Engineer: can do with JS, count the number of item-list classes

When we created the group, we didn’t know how popular the channel would be, but these requests are a fun break from our day to day “real” work. Sometimes the Tech team gets way more invested in the answer to a question posed by a reporter than the reporter intended. Once, we spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to determine what software Jessica Simpson used to create the graphic for this tweet (loads of EXIF digging later, we still couldn’t figure it out and the reporter had completely moved on). In the end, we’ve helped contribute to a bunch of stories and scoops, and in doing so created a bond of trust amongst reporters and technologists across our organization.

Reporter: I credit this scoop to asking the group here, so thank you

The mentality of a good engineer is similar to that of a journalist; both need to ask good questions and seek out accurate answers with persistence even when there might be bugs in a system. Over the past year, it has been fun and rewarding to build a stronger bridge between the News and Tech teams at BuzzFeed, and we only expect this work to continue. Through the collaboration, both teams thrive: members of the Tech team have the privilege of working hand-in-hand with journalists, while the newsroom is able to report on technology with more authority.

Original post was published on Tech @ BuzzFeed publication on Medium, September 4, 2019.

Top comments (2)

preciselyalyss profile image
Alyss 💜

Thanks for sharing! Having work that breaks us out from our day to day seems like it would have a really positive impact on individual mentality in addition to that collaborative aspect with another team.

rhymes profile image

Loved reading about this, thanks for sharing Logan!