Critical Thinking: Will Robot Journalism Replace Human Journalists?

Critical Thinking February 2019 Edition

As more news organizations use artificial intelligence (AI) to help reporters process masses of data, spot patterns and gain story leads, will robot journalism replace human journalists? 

 

Margaret High, 21, senior, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

High is majoring in media and journalism with a concentration in reporting and double majoring in modern European history. She is set to graduate this spring and hopes to pursue a career in news writing.

Despite the growing use of artificial intelligence to help journalists do their job more efficiently, AI will not replace human journalists.

The core of being a journalist is illuminating the human condition, which AI has the capacity to do, but lacks the main ingredient: human. Currently, there’s skepticism of AI taking over human jobs, however that sentiment is likely to change as we all warm up to the idea. Once everyone is okay with a robot being an author, we might see more regular beat stories, such as finance reports or board meetings, be well-written by AI.

However, the best pieces of journalism break conventions. A story by the Washington Post titled, “‘How’s Amanda?’ A Story of Truth, Lies and an American Addiction” gives a face to the disruptive opioid epidemic with powerful writing that breaks traditional news writing methods. Replacing human journalists with AI replaces the ability of stories like this to be written.

Additionally, AI isn’t the cure-all in pursuing unbiased journalism. A study released by Cardiff University and MIT found that robots could develop prejudice—and perhaps with more ease—like humans. The computer science and psychology experts said “prejudice requires only limited intelligence and cognitive ability to develop and spread in populations of artificially intelligent machines.”

That’s concerning news and something that needs to be strongly considered if a newsroom wants to replace humans with AI bots. Human journalists have a moral compass; AI machines don’t.

There also is the example of Tay, Microsoft’s AI chatbot on Twitter, who quickly started to make racist comments after learning from interactions on the social media platform. That taught us AI isn’t immune to one of human kind’s ugliest traits.

Journalism also serves another important purpose: community. AI journalists would severely hinder the ability of a media organization to foster community among their readership.

 

Kasper Lindskow, 37, head of strategy and business development, Ekstra Bladet (JP/Politikens Hus), Copenhagen, Denmark

Kasper holds a Ph.D. in strategic design of digital business models and has worked with strategic transformation of JP/Politikens Hus’ news brands for roughly eight years. 

AI is beginning to affect journalism in many significant ways marking the beginning of what will be a revolution in news publishing. However, the rise of the fully autonomous artificial journalist is still several qualitative breakthroughs in AI-technology away and thus beyond our current “event horizon.”

The first significant impact of AI has begun already with self-learning algorithms that select what news stories to serve in Facebook’s newsfeed and Google’s search results. This has prompted many digital news publishers to prioritize stories that are “liked” by the algorithm. Similarly, many mainstream news publishers are now introducing the same types of self-learning algorithms to aggregate the news for each user on their websites and apps.

In the short term, this will not replace the human editor, as the intelligent algorithms will be relegated to select stories in areas that are less trafficked, and where newsworthiness is less important. However, it does delegate power to an AI-editor and introduces a new element of competition in the news room in which the AI-editor is well-positioned because of its ability to optimize towards simple criteria such as traffic or subscription sales.

AI is also beginning to affect the production of news stories. While the use of AI-tools, such as machine learning to uncover hard-to-find news stories, is still relegated to special investigative teams at the margins of front runner news rooms, less sophisticated forms of automated journalism will have a major impact on mainstream news publishing.

In the medium term, automated and fact-focused news stories produced by “robots” will supplement traditional news stories in areas prone to standardization such as reporting on annual reports from firms and records of football games. Just as importantly, these types of robots will become available as customizable digital assistants to journalists offering first drafts of news stories, graphical illustrations and fact sheets.

The algorithmic editor, the robot-journalist and the AI-assistant are poised to evolve and play increasing roles in the years to come. There are, however, significant limits to the AI-technologies that are available today which constrains the potential impact of AI on journalism.

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Published: February 14, 2019

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Will Robot Journalism Replace Human Journalists?

  • February 14, 2019 at 2:52 pm
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    Perhaps I just don’t understand the vastness of AI, but I can’t imagine AI responding to an accident scene, covering a city council meeting, interviewing people on the street or conducting any investigative work.
    Someone, somewhere must input the data for it to process, and there’s a lot of information not on the web — ask any journalist waiting for a phone call on deadline.
    And news outlets must employ editors to weigh the importance of news stories not only against generic importance, urgency and interest, but against their particular group of consumers at any given time.
    Cell phone cameras, browsers, recorders and even voice-to-text translators do a lot to help a journalist — and have even reduced non-journalist staffing needs (how many darkrooms remain?) — but I don’t see tech replacing the ability to sense news, collect relevant data and comments, and produce compelling articles.
    And what about features stories?
    I’m constantly amazed by the imagination and innovation of all kinds of R&D, and perhaps some enterprising tech company will take my questions as a challenge and prove me wrong, but I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.

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