Robo-journalism gains traction on media scene

WASHINGTON (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - A text-generating "bot" nicknamed Tobi produced nearly 40,000 news stories about the results of the November 2018 elections in Switzerland for the media giant Tamedia - in just five minutes.

These kinds of artificial intelligence programs - available for nearly a decade - are becoming more widespread as news organisations turn to them to produce stories, personalise news delivery and, in some cases, sift through data to find important news.

Tobi wrote on vote results for each of Switzerland's 2,222 municipalities, in both French and German, for the country's largest media group, said a paper presented last month at the Computation + Journalism conference in Miami. A similar automated program, Heliograf, has enabled The Washington Post to cover some 500 election races, along with sports and business, since 2014.

"We've seen a greater acceptance of the potential for artificial intelligence, or robo-journalism, in newsrooms around the world," said Professor Damian Radcliffe from the University of Oregon who follows consumer trends and business models for journalism. "These systems can offer speed and accuracy and potentially support the realities of smaller newsrooms and the time pressures of journalists."

News organisations say the bots are not intended to displace humans but rather to free them from monotonous tasks like sports results and earnings reports.

Mr Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, said Heliograf was developed to help the editorial team. "The Post has an incredible team of reporters and editors and we didn't want to replace them," he said. The bot can deliver and update stories more quickly as they develop, letting reporters focus on other tasks, and reaction has been generally positive.

Similar conversations are going on in newsrooms around the world. The Norwegian news agency NTB automated sports reports to get match results delivered within 30 seconds. The Los Angeles Times developed a "quakebot" that quickly distributes articles on temblors in the region and also uses an automated system as part of its Homicide Report. The Associated Press has been automating quarterly earnings reports for some 3,000 listed companies, allowing it to expand from what had been just a few hundred, and this year announced plans with its partner Automated Insights to deliver computer-generated previews of college basketball games.

Rival news agency Reuters last year announced the launch of Lynx Insight, which uses automated data analysis to identify trends and anomalies, and suggest stories. Bloomberg's computerised system, Cyborg, "dissects a company's earnings the moment they appear" and produces within seconds a "mini-wrap with all the numbers and a lot of context", editor-in-chief John Micklethwait wrote last year, noting that one-fourth of the agency's content "has some degree of automation."

France's Le Monde and partner Syllabs deployed a program that generated 150,000 webpages covering 36,000 municipalities in the 2015 polls. One advantage of algorithmically generated stories is that they can also be "personalised" or delivered to the relevant localities, which can be useful for elections and sports coverage.

While news professionals acknowledge the limits of computer programs, they also note that automated systems can sometimes accomplish things humans cannot.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used a data journalism team to uncover 450 cases of doctors who were brought before medical regulators or courts for sexual misconduct, finding that nearly half remained licensed to practise medicine. The newspaper used machine learning, an artificial intelligence tool, to analyse each case and assign a "probability rating" on sexual misconduct, which was then reviewed by a team of journalists.

Studies appear to indicate consumers accept computer-generated stories, which are mostly labelled as such.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2019, with the headline 'Robo-journalism gains traction on media scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe