The Rise Of The Robo-Journalists

by Jonah Shepp

The LA Times was the first to report on the earthquake that hit LA on Monday. But reporter Ken Schwencke didn’t write the piece on his own, as Will Oremus explains:

“I think we had it up within three minutes,” Schwencke told me. If that sounds faster than humanly possible, it probably is. While the post appeared under Schwencke’s byline, the real author was an algorithm called Quakebot that he developed a little over two years ago. Whenever an alert comes in from the U.S. Geological Survey about an earthquake above a certain size threshold, Quakebot is programmed to extract the relevant data from the USGS report and plug it into a pre-written template. The story goes into the LAT’s content management system, where it awaits review and publication by a human editor.

And it’s not just earthquakes:

It’s just one of several bots that the LA Times uses to produce stories. The site also automates the opening sentence for its Homicide Report, a story for every homicide in the Los Angeles area, as detailed. Another bot sends a daily email of the LAPD’s arrests, alerting journalists to any high-profile arrests, such as ones with particularly high bail or with newsworthy occupations.

Other similarly automated stories would be just as simple, especially for data-heavy news like the monthly employment numbers, sports results, or company IPO filings. The idea of using automatic computer programs to craft stories is not new — all you need is a set of facts and few rules about sentence structure — but few large news organizations have actually resorted to using them.

Relatedly, Derek Mead examines a recent study in which students evaluated sports recaps written by robots as more trustworthy than those written by humans:

Now, there are some clear caveats to the study, which [researcher Christer] Clerwall notes. First, the sample sizes are small. (Clerwall writes that it’s a pilot.) Its limitation to sports game recaps is the main concern, as they’re largely expected to be formulaic, which means that a human adding a bit of flair might be a negative for readers looking for straight numbers. Asking a computer to sort out Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is a much taller task, and one that still requires a human journalist’s nose for bullshit.

But that’s the beside the point. Software will only get better, and as it does, it’ll continue to encroach on the role of journalists as aggregators and repackagers of available information. (The day that computers get into actual reporting is the day the robots fully win.) And as it becomes even more widespread, reporting software will continue to highlight the essential tension of journalism today: What’s the role of a reporter?