Robots and their (unwelcome) place in journalism

Robots are making headlines.

‘If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?’ – The New York Times

‘Robots Are Invading the News Business, and It’s Great for Journalists’ – NY Magazine

‘Should We Be Afraid Or Excited About Robot Journalism?’ – Huffington Post

‘The Prose of the Machines’ – Slate

‘Could Robots be the Journalists of the Future?’ – The Guardian

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Just by reading these headlines you can tell there are some mixed feelings and perhaps some confusion regarding this new technology having a major effect on the journalism world.

According to Will Orem (Slate) gives us two examples of leads, one written by a human and one by a robot. The difference is obvious, he points out. And for obvious reasons. A robot will never be able to mimic the style, flow, creativity, or thoughtfulness a human journalist can. No one wants to read a robotic output of numbers and sentences — at least I wouldn’t. People need some kind of human element to their stories; something to put numbers in context, witty lines or anecdotes. As Orem states, “The human-written earnings story feels more natural, and it weaves the ‘why’ into the lede, whereas the bot’s report is limited to the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and ‘when.'”

Even with these obvious differences many outlets still utilize this time-saving technology. However, is time worth what we would be giving up in the long run?

As journalists I think we need to do the monotonous, not-so-fun stories now and then. When writing these more basic news pieces it allows journalists to utilize these skills and apply them to future stories. It also allows them to gain knowledge on these diverse topics they’re writing about, which may also be applicable to future writing, or simply to broaden your horizons. For example, if you hadn’t been assigned to write that boring statistical news piece on unemployment rates, perhaps you wouldn’t have the inspiration to tie that pervious knowledge into a future story on college majors. In writing these stories there is always the potential to learn, to educate yourself and to ultimately become a better writer because of it. Not to mention, for some people (who may cover breaking news for example) writing these stories makes up a large portion if not an entirity of their job. And more jobs for humans is always a good thing.

New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose is optimistic about humans edge over robots, disagreeing that journalists will eventually lose their jobs to robots completely. A Huffington Post article says Roose argued that the robot-generated stories still lack in talent and creativty, skills that only humans can bring to the writing and editing process. He said that no robot, at this point, can contextualize, piece together, and create “original, evidence-based conclusions” like humans can.

I’m optimistic, too.

While robots may offer quick and accurate storytelling, something about it will always feel just a little bit wrong. It might be a fantastic tool for some, but to me it’s often a way to cut corners, take away opportunity and starve the wonderfully creative process of writing.

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