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2 March 2017

Human journalists hate robot journalists, says new report

Plus, Quiz! Can you tell human and robot journalism apart? 

By Amelia Tait

In news that wouldn’t even shock a frail elderly woman with Extremely Shocked By Everything syndrome, a new report has found that human journalists are mostly not a fan of their robot counterparts.

Researchers led by Professor Neil Thurman of LMU Munich and City, University of London, interviewed journalists and editors to gauge the “capabilities and consequences” of robo-journalism. Ten journalists from CNN, BBC, Thomson Reuters, Trinity Mirror, and The Sun offered their opinions of an automated journalism software created by an unnamed leading technology provider.

“I would never, ever, ever have written a story like that,” said one journalist from the BBC, whilst a senior CNN writer called the resulting article “throw away and repetitive.” A writer from The Sun argued that robots can’t find the “human angle” needed to make a story interesting.

Yet although it seems like journalists whose jobs are on the line might suffer from a teeny, tiny bit of bias, Thurman argues the research also adds a much-needed fresh perspective. “The coverage [of robot journalism] is often based on statements, press releases from the technology companies,” he tells me, “And obviously they are going to be quite positive in terms of what the technology can offer.” The report also includes the opinions of journalists in executive positions, who would potentially benefit financially from sacking all of their humans.

As well as critiquing the robot writing, some journalists were concerned that the potential volume of automated stories could make it easier for “prejudiced” people to influence the news agenda. “It’s virtually unlimited the number of stories that can be produced,” explains Thurman. “If automation can pump out a lot of information on social media that may influence the stories that are trending and therefore would influence the news agenda.” The journalists were interviewed in May last year, before this concern became a reality when Twitter bots were used to bolster the Trump campaign.

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Though the journalists’ reactions were largely negative, many writers did appreciate the potential positives of automated journalism. The Sun’s writer thought the software could “present the facts as they are” without “manipulation” found in traditional journalism. Those from Reuters felt it could help to quickly break stories initially, before real journalists took the helm for further coverage.

Thurman also feels the technology could help to personalise stories. “The technology could be used, for example, to do a match report for the home fans, the away fans, and the neutral,” he says. “You could have three versions produced automatically and sent different places, or it could be personalised to someone depending on their physical location, their interest level or even their reading level.”

Despite the journalists’ overall concerns, automated journalism is on the rise. It is currently used by the Associated Press and Forbes, among other publications.

Yet as it stands, the word “robot” makes the whole affair seem more complex than it actually is. The reality is that automated journalism simply slots data into a template that has to be written by a human. For example, Thurman explains that for a football match the template might read: “At ___ today, in front of a crowd of ____, ____ beat ___ with ___ goals to ___.”

As it stands then, human journalists are still needed and Thurman believes they will be for some time yet.

“This is a different take than you might hear from some other people,” he says. “You get quite a few people in the tech world and in Silicon Valley talking about artificial intelligence and talking about how in a few years it will outstrip human intelligence. But I think that there are some fundamental limitations with artificial intelligence which will mean that the sort of journalism that a lot of people want to read won’t be able to be produced by computers in the foreseeable future.”

Speaking of quality journalism, how about a quiz? Can you tell robot and human journalism apart?