Navigating the News

With all the craziness going on in the world recently, I wanted to reevaluate how I get my news. Many of us, including myself to an extent, use social media to get our news these days. This in my opinion comes naturally - many of us check social media regularly and post about topics we are passionate about. But this method of becoming informed has many well-documented pitfalls - for example, what we see is very biased based on what the people we follow believe and, thanks for closed-source learning algorithms, is also biased based on our own beliefs (as perceived by a particular platform). Not to mention the barrier of entry for social media is very low - almost anyone can create an account and start broadcasting their personal dogma to anyone who will listen. As such I turned to this chart created by Ad Fontes Media to try and find a more reliable, unbiased source of news.

At the peak of these two metrics sits several well-known names, many of which are now referred to as "legacy media" organizations such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I already rely on "legacy media" for some of my news - as a Greater Boston resident I check the Globe to see what's going on in the Metro area as well as, to a lesser extent, the rest of the country. But I wanted something more easily-digestible on a daily basis, something that could be delivered to me as a sort of package of today's news rather than something I would have to reference and dive deep into during my free time (and I'm sorry "The Boston Globe" but your mobile app is abysmal).

I noticed that also near the top of the chart sits the traditional cable news stations - ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News. This was exactly the type of news I was looking for: daily and digestible like social media, but more reliable and less biased like "legacy media" such as The Boston Globe. However, like many folks my age, I do not have cable nor I am inclined to block out 6:30pm for myself every night to sit in front of my television. I turned to YouTube to see if any of the "Big Three" cable news outlets posted their national news broadcasts on the internet. Curiously, neither ABC nor CBS do, but NBC does. Fortunately, this made the choice of whose news to consume easy.

Unfortunately, NBC has a few pitfalls to their methodology of posting their full-length national news broadcasts. First and foremost, it is not the only thing they post on their YouTube channel. A plethora of news clips and other videos intersperse the content I was actually seeking. Yes, I could subscribe to their YouTube channel and pick through my feed to find what I was looking for, but this defeats the purpose of what I was actually trying to achieve. Second, the posted news broadcasts do not have a single, consistent title scheme. Third, there seemed to be no consistent time when the broadcasts were actually posted on the YouTube channel itself (somewhat ironic considering that NBC has aired content on television via strict timetables for over half a century). With these challenges and no real mechanism on YouTube to address them, I wrote a small Python program called news-delivery-service to try and bridge the gap.

In a nutshell, NDS is designed to run early in the morning - for me I have it run around 1AM on my Raspberry Pi. It calculates yesterdays date and formats it in a syntax consistent with that used in NBC's Nightly News Full Broadcast postings historically. Using this, the keyword "Nightly News", and the unique ID for NBC's YouTube channel, NDS performs a search for the previous days broadcast via the YouTube v3 API. Up to five results are captured, and using jinja2 templating and Python's smtplib an email is sent to any defined recipients containing the search results, which in my testing has always included the previous days broadcast. By delivering me an automated email every day containing a 20-minute, relatively reliable and unbiased video of the previous days news, I hope to bring the best of what social media and cable news have to offer together and become a generally more informed individual.

Speaking on a more personal note, as a member of the software industry I am of course an advocate of technology and its use in our society. However, I fear technology is often harnessed moreso for the use of sowing disinformation rather than attempting to spread truth. The fact that "legacy media" sits at the top of Ad Fontes Media's chart whereas newer more "modern" offerings such as Occupy Democrats and Infowars sit on the wings I think speaks to this. While this trend is the fault of no one (there is no proverbial "Skynet" of fake news that should have been destroyed by time travelers in the early '90s) I do think it is the responsibility of the technology community to work toward using the tools we build and the data we collect to work toward a society where people are more, not less, informed.

Here's to trying to take a step in the right direction.