“Robot Journalism”: The damage done by a metaphor

Carl-Gustav Lindén

I am at yet another conference, hearing yet another presentation of “robot journalism”. I realise that my campaign against this metaphor for news automation was lost long ago. With the use of pictures depicting robots writing on keyboards, sometimes wearing a hat where it says, “Press”, graphical designers, editors, and researchers have managed to establish the most damaging mental picture. By framing news automation as robots coming to take the jobs of journalists, we have managed to maybe destroy, or at least delay, our move towards a future of augmented journalism, where smart machines are helping reporters do their jobs better. (This is what we call a robot.).

In this article, I’ll talk about augmented intelligence – not artificial intelligence, a divide that was described wonderfully by my friend John Markoff. I’ll draw upon my recent scientific articles, published by Digital Journalism, Decades of automation: Why are there still so many jobs in journalism?, and in the Journal of Media Innovations, Algorithms for journalism: The future of news work, where I claim that media and journalists should embrace computational thinking to be able to reap the fruits of new technology.

You might think that there is a lot going on, at least based on the massive publicity about the cooperation between the legacy news agency Associated Press in New York and the software company Automated Insights in Durham, North Carolina. Together, they have created a system that automatically generates earnings reports for AP’s customers. It is simple and works beautifully, relieving financial reporters from the boring and tedious work of digging through financial reports, and getting totally bugged-down by the “earnings seasons” that last for several weeks four times a year.

Francesco Marconi at AP has written a nice guide to automation for those who want to follow progress in this area and there are experiments going on at many news agencies where this actually saves many resources.

Marconi also states something that should be obvious to us all: not all journalistic work should be automated, but we would be stupid to not explore these new opportunities that advances in natural language generation gives us.

However – and this is a view based on dozens of research interviews I have done across Europe and the United States, as well as discussions at conferences such as GEN Summit, Computation + Journalism, Nicar, ICA, and WAN –IFRA Digital Media Europe – there is not much going on in this field. AP is one of the few cases. Another, is United Robots in Sweden, which provides newspapers companies with automated soccer coverage (have a look here). Narrative Science has also been doing this for several years now. But besides these showcases, not much.

My talks with representatives from service providers of news automation tools, who have negotiated with media companies, paint a depressing picture of the mental state of media companies. They are the worst possible customers. They are unable to make decisions, have no financial resources, are not prepared to invest in new technology, are always looking for the low-hanging fruit, and are content with the fact that their peers are not doing any investments either.

“Media companies are way behind in the race towards augmented intelligence and, in a situation where they really need to invest resources, they are holding back.”

It’s no wonder software companies are looking for better customers in the financial industry or ecommerce. At least they get a lot of free publicity, which is good for marketing towards other potential customers. And looking at the financial statements of media companies gives you a grave picture of how little investment is put into digital transformation. “We have given up on media customers”, “never again work without getting paid”, and so forth, are things I frequently hear. Media companies are way behind in the race towards augmented intelligence and, in a situation where they really need to invest resources, they are holding back.

If we take journalists, they are more than happy to dismiss the potential of news automation. This is somewhat strange, considering how many functions in any newsroom are automated already, beginning with word processing and photo editing. Walk in to a television studio and be amazed by the level of automation. In reality, the latest development should be regarded as just another step in the newsroom’s human–computer advancement. There are no signs that automation has taken away any journalist’s jobs; instead, journalists are performing tasks that previously were assigned to non-editorial specialists, such as typesetters, telephone operators and darkroom assistants, which now have all but disappeared from the editorial offices.

Automation or computer anxiety is certainly not a new thing in either knowledge work generally, or journalism in particular. Aristotle, Queen Elisabeth I, the Luddites, James Joyce and John Maynard Keynes were all concerned with the impact of technology on employment (for more information on automation anxiety, click here).

Automation anxiety should not be equated with worries about what smart machines will be able to perform in terms of surveillance, or coercion and the balance of power. These concerns are justified as the potential threats are real. However, that should be kept separate from the “jobs lost” debate. Here, the damage done by the metaphor “robot journalism” cannot be overstated. Please stop using it.

Carl-Gustav Lindén

The text was originally published on the website Data Driven Journalism.

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