Random Ephemera

The Future of News Involves Robots, Like It Or Not

Humans dress like robots, so who can really be surprised that things are going in the opposite direction?
Humans dress like robots, so who can really be surprised that things are going in the opposite direction? Photo by Francisco Montes
It’s amazing how quickly a new phrase can enter the zeitgeist only to be rendered meaningless. Look no further than the phrase “fake news.” Now, what is true is that there is plenty of fake news out there, and you don’t have to go far to find it; one only has to scroll through their Facebook or Twitter feeds for a few minutes most days to find something of questionable truth. But most people using the phrase don’t use it to mean “news that isn’t true,” they use it to mean “news I don’t like so it must not be true.”

It also brings a certain level of hostility, usually directed at the person who wrote whatever story has upset the person slinging the phrase. Add into that shrinking newsrooms and it’s kind of amazing there are still fighting the good fight and joining the fourth estate. I’m glad they are though because journalism is important, in particular local journalism (and I’m not just saying that because I write for local publications and have many friends who do as well).

But what my friends are going to have to learn to reconcile with is not just the future hostility they face, but the fact that there’s a new type of journalist on the rise, one that is likely to stick around for the long haul: the robot journalist.

I sat in on a panel at SXSW titled “The Humanoid Future of Journalism” and learned all about how publications in Sweden and Finland are using algorithms not only to generate more stories — and thus more page views — but to do, in theory, better journalism. As the panel went on, two things struck me: the first was “this is totally the future” and the second was “so many people I know are going to be bummed out by this.”

And I understand why this might upset people. No one wants to think they are replaceable, especially by a piece of computer code. To say that the entire history of journalism terminates at a point with algorithms doing all the work, which is where the mind naturally goes when they hear the phrase “robot journalist,” does sound kind of weird and off-putting. How can a machine find the human in “human interest?”

Well, right now they can’t. And unless there are some huge, society-altering shifts in AI in the next few years, it’s going to be a while, if ever, before “robot journalists” are doing long-form. But what they can do is automate the stuff that human journalists shouldn’t be wasting their time on or beats that would be impractical to cover. Why have one person trying to keep tabs on the entire real estate market for an entire county, for example, when a robot can be fed that info and generate stories automatically? Not to put the fear of God into sports reporters, but there will be publishers who see the value of having robots generate stories for every single football game that happens in a region without having to send someone to every single game, or force some non-sports reporter to man the phones receiving scores late into Friday night.

The theory goes that with robot journalists tackling stuff that is easily automated and generating page views, that frees up human journalists to cover the stories that really matter in a community. They can focus on investigative journalism without having to stop to cover the latest road closure. It could, perhaps, allow journalists to focus on what they love about the profession.

The robot journalists aren’t without flaws. At the end of the day they are only as good as their data, and if something goes wrong in the data collection, or data for certain things just doesn’t exist, the algorithm isn’t going to pick up on that. Their stories are also going to be on the dull side because robots can’t do interviews yet, so they can only speak with the data.

Which is why, I think, the public will embrace our robot journalist future. Yes, a robot journalist might make a mistake, but no one is going to accuse it of being a “right-wing nut” or a “bleeding heart snowflake.” In countries that are on the cutting edge of robotics (South Korea is an example), people are already quite comfortable with the idea of robots writing the news. Robots never make the same mistake twice, and they provide coverage that would be impossible with human-only newsrooms. The change has already come to the States, even if you’re not aware of it; the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times are already in the robot journalist game.
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Cory Garcia is a Contributing Editor for the Houston Press. He once won an award for his writing, but he doesn't like to brag about it. If you're reading this sentence, odds are good it's because he wrote a concert review you don't like or he wanted to talk pro wrestling.
Contact: Cory Garcia