Will robots take over journalism?

Posted by Sydney Price

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Photo by David Pickett on Flickr via Creative Commons.

If I didn’t write this post, would you still read it? If this post wasn’t written by a human being at all, would you still read it? In the last month, CNN and the Huffington Post, among others, reported that major news outlets are using software algorithms to “write” stories that require a lot of data.

The L.A. Times uses a program called Quakebot to update online readers about earthquakes within minutes of their occurrence. The robot even has its own Twitter page with up-to-date reports.

The Associated Press also uses robot-fueled journalism to release dispatches about sports, finance and other number-heavy topics. Some of these news releases are not seen by human eyes before hitting the website.

Use of these programs has sparked concerns in the journalism world about accuracy and unsurprisingly, the fear of being replaced by machines.

An editor at AP who oversaw the integration of their program, Philana Patterson, is supportive of the software because it saves human reporters the time spent crunching numbers in an effort to make sense of information.

“One of the things we really wanted reporters to be able to do was when earnings came out to not have to focus on the initial numbers. That’s the goal, to write smarter pieces and more interesting stories,” said Patterson in an interview for The Verge.

After reading one of AP’s robot-produced stories, I felt that sounded pretty choppy and formulaic. However, I agree with Patterson’s point in that finding and making sense of relevant statistics can be very tedious and time-consuming. Though robot journalism seems to work well for numbers, I don’t see it being useful for feature length pieces that require personality and voice. How far do you think robot journalism should go?

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2 responses to “Will robots take over journalism?

  1. Interesting post! I haven’t heard much about this before. I think “robot” journalism should stop where it is now and just do the number-heavy stories. I can see these algorithms being extremely useful during earthquakes, as mentioned, when the information needs to get out to people as fast as possible.

    As for longer pieces, I think the “robots” definitely lack that human tone that is so essential for reliability, as you touched on. I also foresee accuracy becoming a big problem. Computers sometimes spit out awkward wording in a way that we would never write it, becoming a dead giveaway that the story was written sans human. And, of course, I’d like to get a job without having to compete against algorithms.

  2. I agree with Taylor on all of her points. 1: This is the first I’m hearing about this. 2: These algorithms are probably extremely reliable and useful – saving time and enhancing effectiveness. 3: Longer pieces should be saved for human brains.

    These robots totally lack the human capacity to put a “voice” on the article. While the robots may be taking some jobs, I have a feeling that feature articles, opinion articles, and the like will now and forever be written by talented, thoughtful and hardworking journalists. (Or so we’d like to think.)

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