Ro­bot jour­nal­ism

Quick, get a by­line for R2-D2

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Editorial Page -

YES, we are quite fa­mil­iar with new tech­nol­ogy, thank you. Some of us might pine for the years of type­writ­ers and paste-up, but this news­pa­per wouldn’t be in your hands to­day, or on your de­vices, with­out a big as­sist from com­put­ers. No more hot type for us! And no need for dot ma­trix pho­tos and dark rooms. We are rid­ing the tide of 2019 tech­nol­ogy, even if some of us have to be dragged along by the ear.

The New York Almighty Times did a piece the other day on the “rise of ro­bot re­porters.” It didn’t sit well for this out­fit’s inky wretches. For we’ve seen the re­sults of this kinda thing. It ain’t pretty. (Would a ro­bot use the word “ain’t”?)

One par­tic­u­lar sports web­site that we visit dur­ing fan­tasy foot­ball sea­son is a great ex­am­ple. That is to say, an aw­ful one. It doesn’t take a prac­ticed hand or trained eye to see how its “re­ports” are spit out, and we mean spit:

(Fill in the blank) quar­ter­back for (fill in the blank) team threw for (fill in the blank) yards this past Sun­day, push­ing (fill in the blank) past its di­vi­sion ri­val (fill in the blank) by a score of 67-42. Next up for (fill in the blank), (fill in the blank) fea­tur­ing (fill in the blank).

Ugh. Such “re­ports” have all the heart of a toaster oven.

Those who push this new tech­nol­ogy as some­thing good, in­stead of some­thing to be­ware, say it’s all part of change, and these re­ports should be con­sid­ered “tools” by car­bon-based jour­nal­ists.

Take this, from Jeremy Gil­bert, di­rec­tor of strate­gic ini­tia­tives at The Wash­ing­ton Post:

“When you start to talk about mass me­dia, with na­tional or in­ter­na­tional reach, you run the risk of los­ing the in­ter­est of read­ers who are in­ter­ested in sto­ries on their smaller com­mu­ni­ties,” Mr. Gil­bert told the pa­pers. “So we asked, ‘How can we scale our ex­per­tise?’”

Scale our ex­per­tise? Spo­ken like a di­rec­tor of strate­gic ini­tia­tives. Or a ro­bot. Some­body get us an ed­i­tor who can trans­late.

Bet­ter yet, some­body sic an ed­i­tor from, say, 1988 on this guy and the whole idea of ro­bot jour­nal­ism. We imag­ine said ed­i­tor—com­plete with a half-eaten cigar in his mouth—might have a choice word for the man. Or two choice words. The ed­i­tors who trained us would fill the air with a tapestry of oaths had any­body sug­gested ro­bots in their news­rooms. Or weak cof­fee.

Be­sides, ro­bot jour­nal­ism doesn’t seem to save much time in many cases. Ap­par­ently flesh-and-blood jour­nal­ists have to write sev­eral copies of a story for the com­puter to use, de­pend­ing on what the num­bers say when they fi­nally ar­rive. A ro­bot can tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a 0 and a 1, but it can’t write the tem­plate it­self.

From The Times re­port: “A.I. jour­nal­ism is not as sim­ple as a shiny ro­bot bang­ing out copy. A lot of work goes into the front end, with ed­i­tors and writ­ers metic­u­lously craft­ing sev­eral ver­sions of a story, com­plete with text for dif­fer­ent out­comes. Once the data is in—for a weather event, a base­ball game or an earn­ings re­port—the sys­tem can cre­ate an ar­ti­cle.”

Cre­ate an ar­ti­cle? This sounds sus­pi­ciously like writ­ing two ledes for a late foot­ball game, and go­ing with the right one at dead­line. Why do we need ro­bots for that?

Sure, com­put­ers are use­ful things for Homo faber, the an­i­mal that uses tools. But a com­puter isn’t go­ing to de­scribe a base­ball fly­ing into an Easter-egg blue sky to the cheers of tens and tens of peo­ple as a mi­nor league team cel­e­brates a walk-off homer that ended a 20game streak of al­most win­ning.

And it’s not go­ing to in­ter­view the mother of this year’s run­ner-up at the state spell­ing bee who was knocked out by “sti­chomythia.” And fill-in-the-blank sto­ries might work for FLASHES from the bond mar­ket, but you’re not likely to buy a news­pa­per for that. Surely you don’t want your news, fea­ture and opin­ion ar­ti­cles to sound like The Weather Chan­nel’s warn­ing about storms com­ing to PARTS OF pu­laski county, PARTS OF saline county, NORTH­ERN grant county. Towns in the storms path IN­CLUDE . . . .

MANKIND—jour­nal­ists should be in­cluded—will use tools. But he will re­sist be­ing used by them.

Give us this neat com­puter with the abil­ity to erase er­rors with a but­ton. It beats cor­rec­tion fluid and rib­bon. But save the canned sto­ries for fan­tasy foot­ball, where they can’t do much harm.

Some­body did note that the com­puter’s sto­ries had a lot fewer ty­pos in its copy. We hope he was kid­ding. Be­sides, a typo is well now and again. It shows we’re hum­man.

At least for now, Gen­tle Reader. As long as we can hold back the fu­ture.

Wish us luck.

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