Robots Writing the News – Who Cares?

I suppose it’s only natural:  Just like the financial pros who didn’t /wouldn’t see the economic disaster they created are being replaced by robots, the people who was supposed to uncover the reckless market behavior (the journalist) are about to be replaced by computers and algorithms, too.

“I doubt that people who read our posts – unless they religiously read the earthquake posts and realize they almost universally follow the same pattern – would notice, I don’t think most people are thinking that robots are writing the news.”

Ken Schwencke

robo report

No, I don’t think so, either. It has to be a damn good story make me check out the name of the person who wrote it! And after this post, I will probably never bother to look at a byline again – because the stuff may very well be made up by some computer, able to produce flawless articles using sophisticated algorithms, processing huge amounts of data .

Automated reports, like statistics and research papers, are nothing new. But journalist and digital editor at The Los Angeles Times, Mr.  Ken Schwencke, have taken it a step further.

He has written his own software – an algorithm – that writes his articles for him. As The Vancouver Sun reports:

Journalist Ken Schwencke has occasionally awakened in the morning to find his byline atop a news story he didn’t write.

Instead of personally composing the pieces, Schwencke have developed a set of step-by-step instructions for his computer 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,” the slightly shocked Canadian newspaper writes.

Jamie Dwyer, bachelor of science in computing science from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, says 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.

In this case, the algorithm functions to derive and compose coherent news stories from a stream of data.

Ken Schwencke at LA Times seem to have no concerns whatsoever about giving up his job (at least partly) to a computer.

He says the use of algorithms on routine news tasks frees up professional reporters to make phone calls, do actual interviews, or dig through sophisticated reports and complex data, instead of compiling basic information such as dates, times and locations.

It lightens the load for everybody involved

MORE@The Vancouver Sun

Perhaps, but not everybody are equally happy about it. Certainly not every still-writing-journalist!

But according to Kristian Hammond, co-founder of Narrative Science, a main producer of writing machines, they have nothing to fear.

This robonews tsunami, he insists, will not wash away the remaining human reporters who still collect paychecks. Instead the universe of newswriting will expand dramatically, as computers mine vast troves of data to produce ultracheap, totally readable accounts of events, trends, and developments that no journalist is currently covering.

Mr. Hammond also predicts that a computer will win the prestigious US journalism award – The Pulitzer Prize – within five years.



Lisa Taylor, who is a lawyer and a journalist teaching ethics to undergraduate students at the School of Journalism Ryerson University, highlights one of the important issues.

The complicating factor here is a deep suspicion journalists and news readers have that any technological advancement is going to be harnessed purely for its cost-cutting abilities.

But Taylor also points out that this new tool may have some positive effects for the media professionals.

She believes that journalists will have to start discussing algorithms, just as they talk about Twitter and other rising social media.

“How can we use this effectively, reasonably, and in a way that honours the tenets of journalism?” Taylor ask.

I’m afraid it may be a bit late for that.

The fact is that these automated articles are still being presented and published with a byline at the top, like some human being actually wrote the piece.

That’s misleading to the readers, at the least. And this comes at a time when the credibility of a journalist is lower than a used cars salesman.

This case also raises a lot of new questions. F.ex. Who holds the copyright on the generated articles? And what if Mr. Schwencke’ decided to leave the LA TImes and work for another employer?

Does he retain the right to the “bot?” Or is that algorithm, developed while employed with the LA Times, considered a “work for hire,” and thus, the paper’s property?  Arguably, his algorithm is an extension of him, covering his area of expertise and designed to emulate his reporting.  What if Schwencke generates a similar piece of software for his new employer?  Would he be permitted to do this, or would this be prevented by additions to “non-compete” clauses?

Is it patentable?

Tim Cushing at notes.

The more ubiquitous “robo-journalism” becomes, the more issues like these will arise. Hopefully, IP turf wars will remain at a minimum, allowing for the expansion of this promising addition to the journalist’s toolset. With bots handling basic reporting, journalists should be freed up to pursue the sort of journalism you can’t expect an algorithm to handle – longform, investigative, etc. This is good news for readers, even if they may find themselves a little unnerved (at first) by the journalistic uncanny valley.

But the basic for any outcome in this case is that people – both consumers and publishers – starts a discussion. And I don’t see that happening. Symptomatically, take a look at the share buttons on the top of the Vancouver article. It’s been online for almost a month and have been tweeted just once. Shared one time at LinkedIn, five times at Google+ and received the stunning number of 26 likes on Facebook…

robo tweets

That’s rational ignorance for you!

Related by econoTwist’s:


All Human Rights Reserved (h) 2013


2 thoughts on “Robots Writing the News – Who Cares?

  1. Pingback: What Journalists Thinks About Journalism | Rational Arrogance

  2. Pingback: The Endless Stream of Purified Nonsens…and one thing… | Rational Arrogance

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