The Press Association heralded a new phase of mechanised journalism in the UK with this week’s announcement that it will use ‘robot’ reporters to add to coverage of sport, business and elections.
The national reporting agency will augment its existing reportage, in the next few months, by offering ‘an extra level when it comes to short market reports, election results and football reporting,’ its editor-in-chief, Pete Clifton, told the Society of Editors conference.
According to the Press Gazette, Clifton told delegates the new service would work in a similar way to that used by Denmark’s national reporting agency, which produces hundreds of additional market reports a month with ‘robot’ journalists piecing together these simple stories.
Robot reporters might seem like something plucked from the pages of satirical science fiction, but their use is already very real.
The Associated Press said in January last year it had introduced ‘robot’ reporting technology to automatically generate thousands of stories about US corporate earnings each quarter, a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously. In fact, the AP’s Justin Myers, the world’s first automation editor, told the Guardian that automation had turned 400 quarterly earnings reports into 4,000.
Bringing machines in to write stories doesn’t just have to be about volume. In addition to writing earnings reports, Myers added, robots could be used to focus closely on a single issue, meaning the agency could be more targeted in its coverage. In essence, a robot could have a beat: ‘If one of our customers is a paper in a small to medium-sized city, and they want reports on a major employer in their town,’ he said. ‘we now have something for them.’
The idea of specific targeting in this way isn’t just the preserve of the journalistic big boys: On The Wight, a local news website based on the Isle of Wight, said in late 2015 that it had started experimenting with automation in some of its stories.
Journalism.co.uk reported the editorial team of two worked in conjunction with Open University academic and technology expert Tony Hirst to build a computer program that automatically creates reports based on the monthly Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) unemployment figures. Simon Perry, co-owner and publisher of On The Wight, told Journalism.co.uk, the move was a way of ‘liberating content and telling people what they want to know about the JSA figures or other data that we’re working with’.
So, does the move toward ever increasing automation in the newsroom mean fewer human reporters?
The answer from the industry is a resounding ‘no’.
Clifton told his conference that PA wouldn’t be replacing any of its journalists with machines. ‘We won’t have a robot going to a big fire or covering a crown court case,’ he said; at On The Wight, Perry said part of the reason for introducing machine reporting wasn’t about cutting costs, rather freeing up journalists’ time to do other work; while at AP part of the reason for introducing robots was to alleviate the burden on its team of reporters and to let them, as Myers says, to ‘take a step back and tell me instead what you noticed, what was interesting, something personal.’
The move to automation, for now, seems to be about letting machines do the thing at which they’re good: namely, picking out data and writing simple stories; while humans are left to do what they are good at; which is think obliquely, be critical, and deal with a level of complexity that computers can’t handle, which is just about every other type of decent story going…