Francis Steen at the MIT CMS colloquium
Causal Reasoning in the News
6 September 2012

Introduced by Fox Harrell, Associate Professor, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Television news provides a window into the cognitive processes commonly deployed to frame, explain, and reason about events. What Hart and Honoré (1959/1985) show for courtrooms also holds for newsrooms: they rely on commonsense notions of causation to reconstruct events, assemble narratives, and determine responsibility.

The media provide a vehicle for a finer-grained ethical process than is captured by the legal system, often holding people accountable to a higher standard than the law. These standards emerge out of the different voices that appear in the media, creating either a more narrowly elitist or a more broadly-based and inclusive social dialogue. The implied goal of this dialogue is to help move society towards a better and more skillful level of functioning; the media firmly holds that free will is real and that human intentions and actions are potent forces of history that cause social change.

To achieve the intended results, however, journalists and others whose voices appear in the media must reconstruct events carefully, identifying possible windows of missed interventions and specific causal forks realistically. Illustrating the social debate in this Comparative Media Studies colloquium, Steen will examine the global media coverage of the July 22, 2011, attack in Norway, demonstrating that the news is not primarily about reporting what happened but about constructing narratives, performing event surgery, and assigning responsibility. Cultural values strongly influence the process of causal reasoning, subtly shaping the future direction of society.

Francis Steen is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at UCLA and Director of the UCLA Library Communication Studies Archive, a multimodal research corpus of some 200,000 television news programs automatically annotated by two billion words from closed captioning and transcripts. He will demonstrate some of the tools developed for the project, along with results from the ongoing NSF/CDI collaboration with computer vision and text mining teams. He and Mark Turner jointly direct the Red Hen Lab, a globally distributed laboratory for research on multimodal communication.

Sponsored by the MIT Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab).

See also Podcast and slides.

Videographer Ozmund Field