STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Robotics Reporters: A Meme Compounded by a Theme
By Staff News & Analysis - March 28, 2013

'Robo-reporter' computer program raises questions about future of journalists … Reporters may not look like this in the future, but one media outlet employs a robo-reporter — a program that compiles data into a pre-determined structure, then formats the information for publication. Journalist Ken Schwencke has occasionally awakened in the morning to find his byline atop a news story he didn't write. No, it's not that his employer, The Los Angeles Times, is accidentally putting his name atop other writers' articles. Instead, it's a reflection that Schwencke, digital editor at the respected U.S. newspaper, wrote an algorithm — that then wrote the story for him. – Vancouver Sun

Dominant Social Theme: Robots provide an efficient alternative to human scribes.

Free-Market Analysis: Here at the Daily Bell we've been carrying on a conversation with feedbackers over the advances of industrial robots – and subsequent investment and employment ramifications.

Now comes this article on robotics taking over reporting. Will reporters be put out of work? And more importantly, will the advent of journalistic robotics increase or decrease industry profitability and competence?

Our considered answer to the above questions would be a qualified no based on the current state of technology. Of course, if science provides us with robo-reporters that truly mimic human creative abilities then we might come to a different opinion.

But right now it seems these robotic programs are mostly being employed along the lines of aggregation. Factual articles are within their purview – obviously not editorials or human-interest features. Here's more from the article:

Instead of personally composing the pieces, Schwencke developed a set of step-by-step instructions that can take a stream of data — this particular algorithm works with earthquake statistics, since he lives in California — compile the data into a pre-determined structure, then format it for publication.

His fingers never have to touch a keyboard; he doesn't have to look at a computer screen. He can be sleeping soundly when the story writes itself.

Just call him robo-reporter.

"I doubt that people who read our (web) posts — unless they religiously read the earthquake posts and realize they almost universally follow the same pattern — would notice," Schwencke said. "I don't think most people are thinking that robots are writing the news."

But in this case, they are. And that has raised questions about the future of flesh-and-blood journalists, and about journalism ethics.

Algorithms are fairly versatile, and have been doing a great number of things we sometimes don't even think about, from beating us at computerized chess, to auto-correcting our text messages.

Jamie Dwyer holds a bachelor of science in computing science from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and provides IT support for Environment Canada. Dwyer said algorithms can be highly complex computer codes or relatively simple mathematical formulas. They can even sometimes function as a recipe of sorts, or a set of repeatable steps, designed to perform a specific function.

But even if an algorithm can analyze and manipulate data fairly well, journalism is still based on not only filtering but also finding other available information …

This is the crux of the issue, of course, and it has a bearing not just on robotic reporting but on the industry in general. And as we have pointed out, it is easier to understand the issue if one puts it in human terms. One does not usually hear, for instance, about the dire prospects of an older generation of workers being replaced wholesale by a younger one.

And thus it is when it comes to robotics. To summarize the conclusions of past articles … either robots will provide workers with more leisure time or they will create increased wealth that will offer workers new horizons in industries undreamt of as of yet.

In the modern era, the fallacy of the Luddites has been compounded by the urge to look to government for solutions. Is technology bad? Propose, then, that government fund its destruction and fatten the wallets of workers that have been unemployed. Never mind that this is an entirely artificial construct. It is one that plumbs the depth of mainstream memes and compounds their idiocy with an equally misdirected theme.

After Thoughts

Now reporters are to fear being replaced by robots. Maybe some of these reporters will venture out on their own as alternative media journos. That would be real progress.

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