In manufacturing and law, in the military and space travel, robots — meaning, machines that can handle complex human tasks — are increasingly occupying roles that once required people. It was only a matter of time before the robot presence in journalism would be felt. That day is either near or here. Carefully crafted algorithms are writing articles on business and sports, reporting earthquakes before humans can recognize the event, and tracking the internet for what might become huge.
A quick definition: robot (or “automated”) journalism is news work done by software that is designed to:
- Relieve humans of tedious workloads
- Increase efficiency and remove mistakes
- Do things that humans might not be able to.
From bots that find things online, to “natural language” software that turns data into stories, to machine learning programs that can personalize your news feed, automation is creeping into normal practice. But the machines can’t do it alone. Humans have to create the algorithms, and in this sense they are responsible for them. People review drafts, check for errors and give the green-light to publish. When they find mistakes they try to fix the algorithms so that the error won’t be made again.
The big unknowns are: how to provide transparency and accountability for algorithmic decision-making, whether editorial judgment can in some way be automated, and what the possibilities are when robots and human journalists work together.