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Script on computer screen. Neil Thurman, robo-journalism
Arts & Culture Series: Research Spotlight

Robo-journalism’s limitations not halting its onward march, report finds

Dr Neil Thurman interviewed journalists and media executives at major news organisations as part of new study

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

Neil ThurmanJournalists and editors believe ‘robo-journalists’ do not have a good nose for news and produce one-dimensional stories, according to new research. However, despite these limitations, the report reveals plans for the technology to be rolled out more widely with the potential to replace “hundreds” of journalists at Thomson Reuters alone.

The researchers, led by Professor Neil Thurman of LMU Munich and City, University of London, interviewed journalists, editors, and executives from CNN, BBC, Thomson Reuters, Trinity Mirror and News UK. All had hands-on experience with robo-writing software from one of the leading technology providers.

Robo—or automated—journalism, is software that converts structured data into stories with limited to no human intervention beyond the initial programming. It is used by news organisations including Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and Forbes.

The report, When reporters get hands-on with robo-writing: Professionals consider automated journalism’s capabilities and consequences, is published in the international peer-reviewed journal Digital Journalism.

Research results

The journalists and editors in Professor Thurman’s study believe robo-journalism’s reliance on data streams and the need to program news angles in advance means the stories produced lack the context, complexity, and creativity of much traditional reporting. A BBC journalist said “I would never, ever, ever have written a story like that” while a senior sports journalist at CNN called the output “throw away and repetitive”. He thought that much of what he would want to include in a story “can’t be programmed in”.

Journalists also thought the need to template robo-written stories in advance is a drawback. One, from the BBC, said “you can’t get a reaction to those numbers, you can’t explain or interrogate them because the story template was written before the numbers came out” and concluded, after using robo-writing technology first hand, it was not worth the BBC researching the technology further.

Despite these shortcomings, journalists do believe robo-journalism does have the potential to reduce costs and increase the speed and specificity of some reporting. Journalists at CNN and Reuters thought it could “reduce costs” by replacing “expensive staff” who are doing “fairly simplistic and time-consuming work”. A Reuters journalist believed automation could improve speed and accuracy, and said “we are looking at it in all parts of the company”. Another Reuters journalist said automation will be used for stories they do not “have the resources to cover manually”.

Robo-journalism was seen as something that could both support and threaten journalistic objectivity. A journalist from The Sun thought it could “present the facts as they are” without the “manipulation” in human journalism which, he said, could be “quite a good tool for democracy”. However, another, from the BBC, was concerned that the volume of content it is possible to produce through automation could make it easier for “prejudiced” individuals or organisations to influence the news agenda.

Conclusions

Professor Thurman said: “Robo-journalism is limited in its ability to provide the contemporaneous context that is essential to much reporting, to understand the nuances of human expression that help determine how events are reported, and to consistently recognise the most important news angle. However, we believe it will be used more often to produce simple factual reports, increase the speed with which such reports are published, and to cover topics currently below the threshold of reportability.

“However, the increased volume of news resulting from automation may make it more difficult to navigate a world already saturated with information and actually increase the need for the very human skills that good journalists embody—news judgement, curiosity, and scepticism—in order that we can all continue to be informed, succinctly, comprehensively, and accurately, about the world around us.”

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