Robots are elbowing their way into journalism and could steal “hundreds” of jobs, fearful news hacks have told academics.
Professor Neil Thurman and Dr Jessica Kunert, researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and Konstantin Dörr from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, held a workshop with journalists working in various roles across the BBC, CNN, Thomson Reuters, Daily Mirror-publisher Trinity Mirror, and The Sun-owner News UK.
Conclusions from that confab were published in Digital Journalism [PDF] this month.
The journos were given time to review the output of robo-writing software that uses “algorithmic processes that convert data into narrative news texts with limited to no human intervention beyond the initial programming.” Each participant was asked a series of questions about their experience during an interview.
Most journalists agreed that robot-churned copy lacked depth, creativity, and complexity compared to articles by experienced human journalists. But most expected the use of automated journalism to grow. Presumably because depth, creativity, and complexity are no longer necessary in modern journalism. All three are expensive luxuries publishers can no longer afford.
Hacks working at CNN and Thomson Reuters were particularly cynical. They believed the demise of human news scribes was inevitable, considering the “financial conditions in the industry currently.” Replacing expensive staff who were doing “fairly simplistic and time-consuming work” with robots would “reduce costs.”
Stories need to be based on data and the news angle needs to be programmed in advance. A journalist from the BBC said, “You can’t get a reaction to those numbers, you can’t explain or interrogate them because the story template was written before the numbers came out.” The journalist believed it wasn’t suited for the BBC.
But other journalists from Reuters and The Sun thought it could enhance speed and accuracy – a major issue highlighted since the term “fake news” was coined.
Organizations including the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and Forbes already employ software to write news. A Chinese AI bot called Xiaomingbot single-handedly produced 450 articles covering the Olympics last year over 15 days – a feat that no human reporter could ever achieve.
There may be a silver lining to the thought of machines stealing jobs only to spit out bland copy, however, Thurman said.
“The increased volume of news resulting from automation may make it more difficult to navigate a world already saturated with information and actually increases the need for the very human skills that good journalists embody – news judgement, curiosity, and skepticism – in order that we can all continue to be informed succinctly, comprehensively, and accurately about the world around us.” ®