Hold the Front Page! The Rise of Robot Journalists

Published Jan-18-20

The growth of robot or automated journalism - news stories written by artificial intelligence software.

British Broadcasting Corporation, United Kingdom

The Story:

Hold the Front Page! The Rise of Robot Journalists During the UK General Election of November 2019, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) embarked on a massive experiment with machine-generated journalism. An AI-driven autoscribe system churned out nearly 700 stories, one for every constituency that declared election results overnight. The broadcaster published 649 stories in English and 40 in Welsh, and a human editor checked all before going up on the BBC's website.

"Using machine assistance, we generated a story for every single constituency that declared last night with the exception of the one that hasn't finished counting yet," said Robert McKenzie, editor of BBC News Labs.

According to the BBC, the AI news service was designed to enhance the work of journalists, not replace them. The organization said it just wouldn't have been possible to cover each area with real journalists.

Automated journalism or robot journalism is suitable for stories where there are lots of numbers, such as elections, final reports and sporting results

The computer written articles had no analysis and no quotes. Story structures were pre-set in a template, and the autoscribe turned the relevant data into complete sentences. To maintain the BBC house style, journalists programmed a choice of phrases into the system in advance. Autoscribe then selected which phrases or parts of phrases to use in response to pieces of data. A few of the articles were augmented with some journalistic analysis.

Routine Stories

The BBC is not the only media outfit to try out automated journalism as a way of covering data-rich stories.

The international news organization Reuters built an algorithmic prediction tool called News Tracer that spots breaking events and stories on Twitter. It means that journalists don't have to spend long hours trawling through social media feeds. "Since we started keeping analytical records about a year ago, Reuters News Tracer has beaten global news outlets in breaking over 50 major news stories," said Sameen Shah, director of research for technology development at Reuters, in an interview from 2017.

Forbes uses Bertie, an AI tool that assists journalists in several ways, such as alerting them to real-time trending topics to cover, suggesting relevant images, and suggesting ways to make headlines more attention-grabbing.

Patch, a US nationwide news organization that operates local news sites in more than 1,000 countries, uses AI to deliver around 3,000 routine stories a week, such as weather reports. This frees up journalists to take on more exciting and involved work.

The Future of Journalism?

As in many other industries affected by AI, there is concern that automated journalism will lead to job losses. Others take a different view. For them, artificial intelligence makes journalists more efficient, can improve their work, and give them extra time to devote to more in-depth stories. While ethical debates continue, many news broadcasters continue to use and experiment with robot technologies.

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