Take cover! Here comes Robojournalist!

2014-04-21 00:00

FIRST there was Robocop. Now comes Robojournalist. Be afraid. Though at this stage it’s not exactly clear who has the most to fear, journalists or their readers.

Robojournalism relies on software-generated content created by computer programs that can produce articles, summaries and other content for publication.

According to whatis.techtarget.com: “A content generator takes information — such as financial data or sports details — and fleshes it out into articles.”

Such programmes can produce content far quicker than a human, which makes them ideal for time-critical items such as sport and financial reports.

“A company called MarketBrief, for example, produces 1 000 articles a day — in just seconds each — from securities and exchange commission filings. A company called Narrative Science produces brief reports on baseball and softball games, within minutes of the end of the games, for the Big Ten Network.” (See box).

A recent paper in Journalism Practice, published by Taylor and Francis, details a study undertaken to monitor how readers respond to computer-generated articles versus those written by journalists.

The study, undertaken by Christer Clerwall, assistant professor in media and communication studies at Karlstad University, Sweden, saw readers presented with different sports articles written by either journalists or computers. The readers were then asked to answer questions about how they perceived each article, for example, the overall quality, credibility and objectivity.

The results suggest that the journalist-authored content was considered coherent, well-written and pleasant to read. However, while the computer-generated content was perceived as descriptive and boring, it was also thought to be more objective and trustworthy.

Overall, readers found it difficult to tell which articles had been written by journalists and which were software-generated, and there were no substantial differences in how the different articles were perceived by readers.

“The lack of difference may be seen as an indicator that the software is doing a good job,” says Clerwell, “or it may indicate that the journalist is doing a poor job — or perhaps both are doing a good, or poor, job?”

An earlier study involving computer-generated articles and their potential impact on journalism saw journalists emphasising their strengths such as creativity, flexibility and analytical skills, concluding that the more advanced journalism is not threatened by automated content.

“However, making use of automated content may just as well be seen as a way for news corporations to save money on staff,” says Clerwell, “as they do not need the reporters to produce the content.”

Should journalists be considering a career change just yet? Yes, no, maybe.

Currently, while software-generated content scores high in terms of speed, it’s clearly unable to match the more sophisticated levels of reporting.

But don’t heave a sigh of relief just yet. Last month, the Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper to run a story — about an earthquake — written by a robot journalist.

How articles are generated by programs

SOPHISTICATED content generation programmes rely upon a combination of artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning. The software learns key concepts and vocabulary specific to the content subject, including typical journalistic terms and phrases, to produce content that can be hard to differentiate from that written by a human.

Here’s an excerpt from a sports brief created by Narrative Science: “Wisconsin jumped out to an early lead and never looked back in a 51-17 win over UNLV on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers scored 20 points in the first quarter on a Russell Wilson touchdown pass, a Montee Ball touchdown run and a James White touchdown run.”

However, less sophisticated content generation programs often produce copy that is oddly worded and unclear. Here is an excerpt from Quick Article Software: “Online marketing is inevitable where increasing traffic on the website is concerned … While marketing online, one has to take utmost care to communicate with prospective clients. Also, one cannot afford to interfere with the personal space of any­one. Since, it is a highly personalised means of communication, one needs to take care while dealing with it.”  — whatis.techtarget.com.

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