"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Journalism-by-robot may spread

March 14, 2014
Courtesy of Taylor & Francis
and World Science staff

In­creas­ingly com­mon, com­put­er-writ­ten news ar­ti­cles come across to read­ers as more bor­ing—but perh­aps more cred­i­ble—than those by hu­man jour­nal­ists, a small study sug­gests.

Most of the stu­dy’s find­ings did­n’t reach sta­tis­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance, ex­cept one: that read­ers con­sid­ered software-writ­ten sto­ries less pleas­ant, the au­thors re­ported.

Yet the re­search­ers, Chris­ter Cler­wall of Karl­stad Uni­vers­ity in Swe­den and col­leagues, pre­dict that ro­bot scribes will be tak­ing over more and more, es­pe­cially rou­tine jour­nal­ism work.

Software-writ­ten con­tent has been mak­ing its way in­to on­line sports and fi­nan­cial web­sites in the past dec­ade, trig­ger­ing hand-wringing among hu­man jour­nal­ists. In their stu­dy, pub­lished online in the re­search jour­nal Jour­nal­ism Prac­tice, Cler­wall and col­leagues en­vi­sion a sce­nar­i­o such as the fol­low­ing.

“Imag­ine a car driv­ing down a dark road. Sud­denly a moose crosses the road. The driv­er fails to re­act in time, and the car crashes in­to the moose at high speed. The car, be­ing equipped with mod­ern col­li­sion de­tec­tion tech­nol­o­gy as well as GPS, sends in­forma­t­ion about the col­li­sion to the ap­pro­pri­ate au­thor­i­ties. At the same time, da­ta about the ac­ci­dent are gath­ered by a news sto­ry serv­ice, and in a few sec­onds a short news sto­ry is writ­ten and dis­trib­ut­ed to sub­scrib­ing on­line news­pa­pers. At the on­line news­pa­per, al­go­rithms in the con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem make the judg­ment that this is a sto­ry that will at­tract read­er in­ter­est, for­ward it to the on­line ed­i­tor, to­geth­er with a rec­om­menda­t­ion for po­si­tion­ing (e.g. “this is a top 10 sto­ry”), who fi­nally ap­proves the sto­ry for pub­lish­ing.”

Cler­wall and col­leagues pre­sented a sam­ple of read­ers with sports ar­ti­cles writ­ten by ei­ther jour­nal­ists or com­put­ers. The read­ers were then asked to an­swer ques­tions about how they per­ceived each ar­ti­cle. Over­all, read­ers found it hard to tell which ar­ti­cles had been writ­ten by jour­nal­ists, and which were software-gen­er­at­ed, the study found.

The re­sults sug­gested that the jour­nalist-au­thored con­tent was seen as co­her­ent, well-writ­ten and pleas­ant to read, while the com­put­er gen­er­at­ed con­tent was per­ceived as de­scrip­tive and bor­ing. But it was al­so con­sid­ered ob­jec­tive and trust­wor­thy.

(World Science, need­less to say, does not use ro­bot jour­nal­ists.)

Does that mean ro­bots are ca­pa­ble of do­ing as good a job as jour­nal­ists? Should jour­nal­ists be con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer change? Will a ro­bot writ­er ev­er be able to match the cre­ati­vity, flex­i­bil­ity and anal­y­sis of real jour­nalists? 

The tech­nol­o­gy in place may not be quite able to reach these lev­els of soph­is­t­icated re­port­ing yet, Cler­well argues, but it cer­tainly pro­vides food for thought—the moose-on-the-road sce­nar­i­o might not be as “far-fetched” as it seems.

While ro­bot jour­nal­ists might simply free hu­man ones to do more im­por­tant, higher-level work, they might al­so “be seen as a way for news cor­pora­t­ions to save mon­ey on staff,” Cler­well and col­leagues added.

* * *

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Increasingly common, computer-written news articles may come across to readers as more boring—but more credible—than articles written by human journalists, a small study suggests. Most of the study’s findings didn’t reach statistical significance, except one: that readers considered software-written stories less pleasant, the authors reported. Yet the researchers, Christer Clerwall of Karlstad University in Sweden and colleagues, predict that robot scribes will be taking over more and more, especially routine journalism work. Software-written content has been making its way into online sports and financial websites in the past decade, triggering hand-wringing among human journalists. In their study, published in the research journal Journalism Practice, Clerwall and colleagues envision a scenario such as the following. “Imagine a car driving down a dark road. Suddenly a moose crosses the road. The driver fails to react in time, and the car crashes into the moose at high speed. The car, being equipped with modern collision detection technology as well as GPS, sends information about the collision to the appropriate authorities. At the same time, data about the accident are gathered by a news story service, and in a few seconds a short news story is written and distributed to subscribing online newspapers. At the online newspaper, algorithms in the content management system make the judgment that this is a story that will attract reader interest, forward it to the online editor, together with a recommendation for positioning (e.g. “this is a top 10 story”), who finally approves the story for publishing.” Clerwall and colleagues presented a sample of readers with sports articles written by either journalists or computers. The readers were then asked to answer questions about how they perceived each article. Overall, readers found it hard to tell which articles had been written by journalists, and which were software-generated, the study found. The results suggested that the journalist-authored content was observed to be coherent, well-written and pleasant to read, while the computer generated content was perceived as descriptive and boring. But it was also considered objective and trustworthy. Does that mean that computer robots are capable of doing as good a job as journalists? Should journalists be considering a career change just yet? Will a robot writer ever be able to match the creativity, flexibility and analysis of journalist-authored articles? The technology in place may not be quite able to reach these levels of sophisticated reporting yet, Clerwell said, but it certainly provides food for thought, so that the moose-on-the-road scenario might not be as “far-fetched” as it seems. While robot journalists might simply free human ones to do more important, higher-level work, they might also “be seen as a way for news corporations to save money on staff,” Clerwell and colleagues added.