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How Much Should We Embrace “Robot” Journalism?

narrative-scienceLately, there’s been talk of an emerging phenomenon that gives a whole new meaning to the term computer-assisted reporting.

New technology being tested and used by huge names in journalism allows computer programs to parse complex data and statistics and compose the information into a readable news story.

In a recent American Journalism Review article, Samantha Goldberg reports on companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights, two of the startups on the cutting edge in this debuting endeavor. Both companies use artificial intelligence to extract data and work it into a narrative after interpreting, analyzing and systematically translating quantitative content into something meaningful. Media companies like Forbes, the Huffington Post, Business Insider and Sports Illustrated have either backed the companies or are using their services to distribute content efficiently and with fewer staff members. Plus, it’s cheaper than paying living, breathing humans to write stories on topics that require time-consuming research, analysis and writing time. And, allegedly these pieces of software are so good that they are capable of structuring a news story while maintaining a decently conversational tone. Don’t know if I’d ever compare it to a human writer’s unique “style,” but Narrative Science and Automated Insights’ algorithms make it so that the news stories aren’t impossibly dry.

Okay — fine. It’s kind of cool that there is technology out there smart enough to mimic what a human writer and reporter can do. Efficiency in the newsroom is a common goal. Will these “robots” ever replace journalists entirely? Absolutely not, but it’s worth thinking about where computer-generated reporting can work, and those beats that remind us why humans can’t be taken out of the equation.

Where “robot” reporting can work:

Local startups — To compete with the metro papers who have the resources for community-level reporting, smaller operations might consider using this kind of software for stories on high school athletic events. Don’t have the time to write a brief about the star basketball player’s latest stats? Something like Automated Insights could be handy.

Sports publications — Same as the local startup idea, just on a much bigger scale.

Financial reporters — Numbers, numbers, and more numbers. This is where Business Insider and Forbes have hopped on board. To interpret on a basic scale stock market moves and ever-changing figures associated with Fortune 500 companies, I can see where computer-generated reporting might lighten a media organization’s load.

The beats where reporters “beat” computers:

Investigative — Work done by National Magazine Award winners like Pamela Colloff and others whose storytelling leads to changes in policy and public thought can only be done by writers who have had years and thousands of words of practice weaving together a narrative that inspires and informs.

The arts — Because reviews on film, music and books are, duh, based on human opinion and emotion, you artsy journalism people get to keep your jobs. However, stories about record sale drops or box office numbers could easily be generated using artificial intelligence.

Profiles — Whether they’re of business or political leaders, there’s nothing like an elegantly-crafted profile of a fascinating person. Computers can’t produce anecdotal ledes or insert powerful one-word sentences, or ask tough questions.

Ultimately, the introduction of robot-generated journalism begs the question — what do we really define as journalism anyway? And what kinds of skills should writers and reporters be working to develop, as yet another technological advance changes the game of the journalism industry?

Maybe it’s not one over the other. Perhaps the media of the future finds a mutually-beneficial way to combine computer-generated reporting and human-produced journalism.

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