Anti-churnalism prototype wins BBC News Labs’ City University Hackathon

BBC City Hack judges, BBC News Labs officials and members of The Neutrons team that won the challenge.
BBC City Hack judges, BBC News Labs & Connected Studio officials and members of The Neutrons team that won the challenge on Sunday.

A prototype of a tool that seeks to detect biased reporting of scientific research has emerged tops at the first City University London Hackathon.

The aim of the model, christened Neutron, is to help detect “churnalism”— reproduction of press releases sent to newsrooms by scientists and research institutions.

“Neutron will help to detect this problem by inserting a quote from a news article and searching other articles in which it appears,” said Katah Karáth, a member of The Neutrons team.

“With another software BBC News Labs is building, we can extract the names and, with data visualisation, we can see the connection between the researcher and other people quoted in the articles.”

The goal, she said, is to stop a trend where a small clique of scientists is being quoted by news organisations all the time, some on their own researches, which results in poor quality science journalism.



If developed, the tool would also help measure how much researchers are quoted on their own work and how they are related to other sources in articles.

“With the names of researchers and institutions, we can geocode them and map their influence on scientific news coverage in a given region,” said Karáth, MA Science Journalism student at City.



The other two ideas at the two-day challenge were making of a news tracking tool by Trend Setters and use of social networks to find sources by Hack Athenas.                          

Judges at the event said while the other two projects had interesting features and focused on issues affecting journalism industry, the Neutron stood out.

“Team Neutron identified a genuine problem in the industry and had potential a solution for it,” said Rob Mackenzie, editorial leader at BBC News Labs.        



“Their idea was the most practical and most ‘buildable’”. 

The other judges were City University’s Nail Maiden, professor of digital creativity, and Jonathan Hewett, director of newspaper and interactive journalism MA.      

Mackenzie said the winners would pitch their idea to Labs Central and if found viable, a working prototype would be built.



Organised by BBC News Labs & Connected Studio in collaboration with City, the hack brought together 16 participants from City’s Journalism and Computer Science programmes.

Their task, cording to BBC News Labs data scientist Sylvia Tippmann, was to build a tool that would help journalists dive deeper into topics and do meta-analysis on news articles.

The student journalists and computer scientists were required to come up with different front-ends for the Juicer— the BBC’s experimental news aggregation tool.

The BBC News Labs’ University Challenges seeks to engage the talents of student innovators and help universities use their collaborative potential to build innovative news tools.

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