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Will robots lead to the end of journalism?

More and more newspapers are training robots to tell data-based stories about sports, business and breaking news.

Engineered by the Washington Post’s team, ‘Heliograf’ technology was used to produce short updates on Olympic events for the paper’s live blog and twitter account @WPOlympicsbot. Reports suggest the Post will use the same technology for US election coverage come November. The Washington Post is the latest to join the ranks of Forbes, The New York Times, Yahoo and more in adding automation to its coverage.

We think certain journalists' jobs should be safe for now. Image: Global Panorama / Flickr

We think certain journalists’ jobs should be safe for now. Image: Global Panorama / Flickr

Journalist bots are programmed with algorithms that allow them to fill the gaps in templates produced by journalists. To train a bot to write a story about company earnings, for example, it needs to know what past quarterly earnings were, what other information needs to be included in the story, and where all the information fits in.

Machines of the like are expected to produce more stories in their first year of operation than many journalists’ lifetimes.

The newspaper has insisted the bots aren’t intended to replace its journalists, simply to free them up to work on more engaging articles with a human perspective, saying: “Heliograf will free up Post reporters and editors to add analysis, color[sic] from the scene and real insight to stories in ways only they can”.

The technology is expected to be able to cover a greater range of stories, and even to alert journalists to potential stories by analysing data sets for anomalies and unexpected results.

Because of the time and money involved in training the technology to be able to produce stories, at the moment it has only proved worth doing for firms that plan to use the robots to produce a very high volume of articles.

computers produce more accurate, more efficient and speedier coverage

Their success up until this point led research and advisory firm Gartner to predict that, by 2018, 20% of business content will be written by machines. So, should young people set on entering journalism careers make a U-turn? Does journalism need any of us? Yes and no.

While computers produce more accurate, more efficient and speedier coverage, they require training by humans and have shown no signs of rivalling humans in producing opinions, emotions and other traits essential to writing that moves people.

Put differently, “we will not have a robot winning a Pulitzer [prize for journalism], but a journalist winning a Pulitzer by using robots”. This comment was made by Claude DeLoupy, CEO and co-founder of media software company Syllabs, to the Global Editors’ Network 2016 summit back in June.

The face of journalism is likely to change, and with it the skills that newsrooms will seek in their recruits, but – for the time being – there is still a place for journalism with a human face.

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