Journalism: do we welcome our new robot overlords?
If Terminator and Avengers taught me anything, the answer to this is a big NO. However the bots in journalism are less inclined to world domination (thus far), so the question of “should we welcome these robots into the fold?” is more open to debate. Technological developments have always shaped journalistic work and over the last decades information technology has made its way into the newsroom, assisting journalists in different phases of the news production process (Ornebring, 2010). In his 2012 paper “The Algorithms Behind the Headlines”, Arjen Van Dalen discusses the pros and cons to including robots in the journalism workspace. Some reasons why we should accept them include giving journalists more time to focus on long-form stories, and covering stories which would go uncovered; yet one reason against having bots is the ethical concerns associated with them.
To begin with, algorithms refer to “step-by-step procedures for calculations that consist of instructions and follow a finite set of rules” (Bunz, 2013). In journalism, algorithms can be used to write basic stories that are reliant on data. If computers can churn out these lightly-read stories, journalists can be freed up for more in-depth writing (Hochberg, 2010). Journalists will therefore give more attention to long-form, investigative-type reporting, something which algorithms are not yet capable of doing.
Bots can also be useful for covering stories which would otherwise not be covered by journalists. Due to reasons such as limited staff, budget and time constraints, newsrooms may not be able to cover all the stories they want to. These smaller stories can instead be delegated to the algorithm: ‘‘robot journalists’’ can produce thousands of articles with virtually no variable costs (Van Dalen, 2012). Sports reporting, for example, is described as “ideal for automated content gathering due to the abundant availability of statistics and the formulaic templates and stock phrases” (Van Dalen, 2012). For example, in 2016, the Associated Press announced that it would use algorithms to report on minor league baseball games not previously covered by the news organization. Finance, real estate and weather are also other options that can be explored due to their quantitative nature.
The con of using algorithms for reporting involves the ethical concerns surrounding them. As Montal and Reich (2017) point out, algorithmic authorship raises broad theoretical issues, illuminating the dark side of the rising technology of algorithms and its social and cultural roles. Transparency is a key issue when it comes to robot authors—whose name goes in the byline? Does the publication have to clearly state that a robot wrote this? Montal and Reich found in their study that “almost half of the organizations avoided full disclosure and their bylining policy ignored the unique nature of the automated stories. Even organizations with some level of transparency employed a haphazard and inconsistent crediting policy—in contrast with the almost unanimous support of the readers’ right to transparency expressed in the interviews.” Some organizations, such as the LA Times, attributed the byline to the algorithm. The notion that algorithms are less biased and more objective than traditional reporters is also debatable. It is important to remember that algorithms have the ability to change in accordance with business decisions while hiding their underlying assumptions, ideologies and premises; position themselves as free of interest, errors or subjectivity, and affect perceptions of both journalists and readers (Montal and Reich, 2017).
In closing, some journalists argue that when automated content creation develops further, robots and human journalists will become more closely integrated—instead of algorithms writing one type of story and humans another type of story, articles will be partly automated and partly reworked by humans (Van Dalen, 2012). Rather than asking “should we welcome robots as our overlords?” and subjecting ourselves to a new Age of Ultron, I think the question should be more along the lines of: “how do we work alongside these robots for the betterment of journalism?” Ultimately, were he still with us today, I think this is something Tony Stark would have approved of.
Associated Press (2016, June 30). AP expands Minor League Baseball coverage. Retrieved from http://associatedpress-corp-live-bypass.cphostaccess.com/press-releases/2016/ap-expands-minor-league-baseball-coverage
Bunz, Mercedes (2013). The Silent Revolution: How Digitalization Transforms Knowledge, Work, Journalism and Politics without Making Too Much Noise. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot.
Hochberg, Adam (2010). Stat Sheet Generates Game Stories That Are Both Surprising & Predictable, http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/111565/statsheet-technologygenerates-game-stories-with-surprising-insights-unsurprising-cliches
Montal, Tal and Reich, Zvi (2017) I, Robot. You, Journalist. Who is the Author?, Digital Journalism, 5:7, 829-849, DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2016.1209083
Ornebring, Henrik (2010). Technology and Journalism-as-labour: historical perspectives, Journalism 11(1), pp. 57-74.
Van Dalen, Arjen (2012). The Algorithms Behind the Headlines. Journalism Practice. City: Routledge.