Is there a place for robot-written journalism?

Last week, the New York Times reported that Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, had developed software that would automatically digest sports data and generate a news brief. The software will also create articles out of other material such as a company’s financial reports and housing statistics. Ironically, the software was developed in collaboration with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Narrative Science isn’t the only company in this space. Automated Insights (a company that recently scored $4 million in additional financing and changed its name from StatSheet — could it be because they wanted to use “AI” as their company logo?) has also developed technology that creates “long & short form articles, headlines & summaries written entirely by software, that derive insight from data.”

It’s clear that software like this works best for data-heavy content. And in the aforementioned CJR interview, the founder states that special algorithms for style and tone had to be created; something feasible for data-driven sports and business articles with a consistent tone, but perhaps not that easy for news articles. On Twitter, one user commented that automated content does not equal understanding:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/LawrenceHecht/statuses/116228585798369280″]

Software like this could also be used for mischief. For example, web content farms like eHow could quickly increase the amount of “content” that’s hosted on their sites, solely for the purpose of selling more ads (something they’ve been criticized for previously).

What do you think? Do you think robot-written journalism has a place in the newsroom?

5 comments
  1. I am going to defer to what a CUNY prof told me when I first applied to the J-school: “There will always be a need for great storytellers.” Robots may be able to chew up data and spit it back out, but they can’t construct a story in a meaningful way. Unless robots are at some point also the audience for news (yikes!), I think we journalists should be in the clear.

  2. I saw this too— the examples I’ve seen are frighteningly impressive, and I would not have been able to identify which pieces were robo-scribed. I agree that the main applications for this technology will be good for stories that need to be quickly spit out. I think journalists who just write straight news might have to worry. On the other hand, journalists who can find smart angles, or identify powerful characters to drive strong narratives can feel more secure. Investigative reporters have even less to worry about. A computer program may be able to regurgitate data, or crunch numbers, but it takes human understanding to put disparate data points that otherwise seem unrelated, together. Still, it will be interesting to see how this technology develops and disrupts.

  3. Lindsay Armstrong said:

    We have been talking so much about the idea of added value- that with all of the new technology available, a journalists real role is to add value for the reader and help them to interpret and analyze information. I don’t think robo-writing can take the place of that human analysis. This article makes me wonder if robo-writing will change the strict, formulaic approach to news writing. After all, these computer can only produce these articles because of their easily mimicked style. Maybe this will encourage editors and writers to take more creative, less reproducible approaches to their stories.

  4. This reminded me of paper.li, a site that curates information from your Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to make a daily newspaper (a.k.a., The Julian Dunn Daily). Their mission statement says, “We believe people (and not machines) are the ones qualified to curate the content” but their entire site is based on sorting your information for you—everything from identifying categories and trending topics to writing headlines. It’s pretty cool, but goes to show that a lot of journalist work can be done by, well, robots! Check it out.

  5. Kevin Loria said:

    In the same vein, Farhad Manjoo from slate is working on a series of articles on the topic of robots taking over many types of jobs – and it looks like journalism and blogging will be included.
    http://www.slate.com/id/2304442/

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