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News as fast food cannot be a healthy diet

This piece is not being written by a robot, but an increasing number of reports on the Internet are. Recently, a Los Angeles Times writer-bot wrote and posted a story about an earthquake just minutes after it struck.

So, are we entering an era of automated journalism or is it more techno-hype in news production?

Narrative Science, a Chicago start-up specialising in robot writing, takes data from events like sports and crime, and uses algorithms to produce news stories. Indeed, Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, said that some 90 per cent of news could be written by computers by 2030.

So, can anonymous androids really take over from human journalists? What can they do that journalists can't and what will be the limitations of their application?

News bots take the power of database technology and apply it to gathering news. By stitching together data, such as matching statistics or crime figures, with language, they produce reports.

To achieve this they are programmed with an informational view of the world. In brief, technology accounts for situations in terms of entities, entity attributes and the relationships between them.

Take a very simple example of having coffee. To start with, the entities may be a table, a chair, a mug of coffee and a person. All the entities have unique attributes such as the type of table, the colour of chair and the coffee brand. These are data. Also, the entities are related to each other, as the coffee drinker sits on the chair, the coffee mug is placed on the table and the coffee is consumed by the person. Taken together, these data and relationships create information about the coffee shop, and form a map that can be used to report on all coffee shops.

News bots employ this idea and are able to use templates for standard situations such as sports or weather because they are data driven. At the beginning, Narrative Science applied its algorithms to Little League baseball games. Participating parents would enter game statistics into an iPhone app called GameChanger, which churned out written game summaries.

The news bot was born out of the idea of data-driven journalism, which has been gaining momentum for a number of years. Focused on the power of databases to gather and sort large amounts of data, it seeks to liberate our vast subterranean reserve of digital data for the public as "breaking" news.

At the 2008 Future of Journalism conference, sponsored by The Guardian, journalist and computer programmer Adrian Holovaty articulated this vision by saying there was a crisis in traditional journalism as newspapers were losing money, there is a lot of bias and journalists end up wasting much of the raw data.

Holovaty wants news to be more orientated toward computers, and describes story writing as a process of massaging simple facts - such as location, value of goods, victim/s and date for a robbery story - into a "blob of information" ready for readers and viewers.

The problem is that Google or any other search bot has to search through those blobs to pull out that raw data again. News organisations should therefore develop infrastructure linking data networks with agencies to gather information, verify and distribute it because, as Holovaty says, journalism primarily involves gathering information, distilling it and presenting it to "consumers".

So is Hammond's view that by 2030, about 90 per cent of news could be written by computers a real possibility or the output of a news bot gone bonkers?

Bot stories are data driven, which is both their strength and weakness. They are great at trawling for data and scooping up relevant information, and they can do it anytime and much faster than any human being. That makes them good at certain kinds of stories that can be captured by standard templates, but with digital news being very porous, standard news articles circulate rapidly and add little journalistic value to a news brand. As the economies of scale increase, journalistic values decrease.

Contrast this with what may be called a story-driven approach. A story unravels over time between cycles of interpretation and research, and journalists link situations and interpretations through complex relations such as empathy, morality, values, insight and humour. The result is style.

A journalist has a style and so does a publication. In the digital economy, where news now circulates, style is a competitive advantage that differentiates news providers in the vast landscape of online news. Moreover, it is evident that consumers/readers today want style more than ever. On major online news sites, a high-quality opinion and comments section is a significant part of the offering. News bots are great for standardised news production, liberating big data and as a journalistic tool, but taken alone they are the journalistic equivalent of fast food. It is doubtful that consumers desire a diet that constitutes 90 per cent fast food.

David Edwards is a researcher on journalism with the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China.


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