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Why Robots Won’t Replace Reporters – The Rise of Robot Journalism

By May 2, 2012 7 Comments

Kristian Hammond, cofounder and CTO of Narrative Science, rankled journalists across the web with his prediction that in just 15 years, algorithms will write 90 percent of the news. Hammond’s Chicago-based data analysis and artificial intelligence company was profiled in last week’s Wired article Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?.

No, in our opinion.

Narrative Science is already contributing data-drive stories to publications like Forbes. In the future, it may analyze the tone of tweets to gauge trends and public opinion. Culling through data or other information could help journalists with otherwise tedious research projects. But that doesn’t mean robot journalism will put real-live journalists out of a job anytime soon.

The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield questions the quality of Narrative Science’s articles, calling robot journalism “just plain scary.” And as Arnab Gupta, CEO and founder of Opera Solutions, points out, machines still need humans to process information and decide how to use it (hat tip to Business Insider’s Diane Mermigas).

We can think of a few other reasons why living, breathing journalists remain relevant.

  • Humor comes from humans, not algorithms. Clever headlines work in newspapers and magazines, but they aren’t search engine-friendly because Google doesn’t understand puns. Still, humor can enrich online articles and motivate readers to share them with friends. A few minutes on Linkbait Generator proves the lunacy of programming a machine to spit out a well-crafted joke. It’s just not the same as when it’s written by a person.
  • Reporters understand context. Take this Sara Lee earnings preview that recently appeared on Forbes. Narrative Science may have nailed the data, but it’s all numbers and no context. Who are the major players at Sara Lee? Were there any management decisions or new products that impacted revenue? A reporter might find this earnings preview useful and work some of the information into her own story, but the data alone wouldn’t interest most laypeople. Good reporters also have a knack for incorporating sensory and atmospheric details to bring a story to life.
  • People build a rapport with sources. The earnings preview mentioned above doesn’t include any quotes, and if it did, those quotes might be the kind of staid sound bytes that appear in press releases. Professional journalists and web content writers know how to build trust with sources and elicit information that goes beyond data or facts, speaking to readers on a personal level.
  • Plenty of great stories aren’t driven by data. Would robot journalism robots know to write about an all-girl prom in Hamtramck, Mich.? Or about pet mediators who help divorced couples work out custody arrangements? Once those topics start trending on Twitter, it’s likely that some other outlet had already gotten the scoop.

Do you agree? How do you feel about robot journalism?



  • EJ@sound of my soul says:

    As a former writer and copy editor who had to work for department heads that appeared to be robots on many levels, I say long live flesh and blood. What we do isn’t just words, it’s stories. We’re the ones who make mistakes and build rapport and nail it or crash and burn when we follow a hunch. Without our triumphs and foul-ups, it’s all black and white. We’re the color the newspaper needs, and that can’t be programmed.

  • @EJ: I couldn’t agree more! Thanks for commenting.

  • Jen says:

    I recently wrote a story about the Postal Service with lots of data and numbers and quotes from the PS and senators, you know the easy stuff that is mandatory and anyone could get. But what a robot couldn’t get was the local interaction between employees and how scared they were. Or the quote the PS said at the very end of the interview that wasn’t pre scripted and ending giving me my headline: Business as usual is not an option for us.

    I think the writer nailed it perfectly in this article. Few people are going to read stories full of data and scripted quotes.

  • @Jen: Thanks for commenting! Sounds like a great story and the PS issue is very timely. I agree that a robot couldn’t have gotten those kinds of quotes.

  • Ulysses de la Torre says:

    Hi Susan,

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, but I think you’ve only captured half of the dynamics involved in this phenomenon. If I may:

    You ask, “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?”
    Disregarding for a moment that the word “better” is a subjective judgment, my answer is no, but if an algorithm can deliver stickier readership and wider profit margins than human reporters, then an algorithm may provide a viable solution for a question that you didn’t ask.

    I don’t like this reality any more than you do. But if we’re determined to stay ahead of the curve, then we have to acknowledge that the best quality of anything is not always going to be the most popular, the most profitable, the most rational, the safest or the most intellectually robust.

    To answer your final questions:
    “Do you agree?”
    Yes, I do.

    “How do you feel about robot journalism?”
    At the risk of sounding…robotlike, my feelings really aren’t relevant. I will say that I think the phrase “robot journalism” is absurd on its face, if you mean it literally. Figuratively speaking, I am sad to say that I’ve met a lot of allegedly human reporters who, when you read what comes out of the sausage grinder, are already practicing a nascent form of “robot journalism.”

    Regardless, I’m with you in spirit, but you and I are only two people and we have to be prepared to be in the minority opinion. Part of believing in the marketplace of ideas necessarily involves accommodating fair terms that may be against our self-interests.

    Equally important here is distinguishing the difference between the way things should be and the way things are or will be. Let these narrative science guys market their product. If it truly has no place in the journalism business, then nobody will buy it, they’ll fold their business model and we all move on. If they become the next Google and you and I are stuck for work, then clearly we will need to reassess the way we look at the world. Personally, I’m glad to see someone else risking their capital to test this idea out. And when the dust settles, I’m confident that I’ll still be standing.

  • @Ulysses: You may some excellent points so thanks for commenting! I agree that robot journalism will likely happen whether we like it or not but I don’t think it will actually displace us.

  • […] line? Technology has its limits. Sure, the CSGT might be useful to see what topics are trending online, but it takes a thinking, […]

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