Robo-reporters: The end of the story for journalism?

Ever heard of Jia Jia? No, it’s not a Chinese woman, but a humanoid robot journalist created by developers from the University of Science and Technology in China’s Anhui province in April. She made a splash when she “reported” for the country’s news agency Xinhua and conducted a live interview with an editor of WIRED Magazine.

Jia Jia's interview with Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine.

While she can hold simple conversations and make specific facial expressions, she can only respond to basic questions and her movements are restricted. Jia Jia still has a long way to go. But regardless, her appearance on the global media landscape got the industry thinking. Is this journalism’s final chapter?

In robot journalism - also called automated journalism or algorithmic journalism - news articles are generated by computer programs and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software, rather than human reporters. Voice, tone, and style can be customized depending on the desired output. AI companies such as Automated Insights, Narrative Science or Yseop are already developing and delivering such algorithms, chatbots, and automated reporting systems to newsrooms around the globe. Hold your breath: these robots are able to produce a story in just a matter of a second.

Workers worldwide are fearing for their jobs as the rise of the machine is well underway, and journalists are surely no exception.

In robot journalism news articles are generated by computer programs.

Xinhua wasn’t the only media outlet to experiment with humanoid robot journalists. Global news organizations such as Thomson Reuters or the Associated Press (AP) are already using machine learning algorithms to write their stories. The AP for example began publishing articles for earnings reports last year, using a software from Automated Insights. Google, on its side, has provided the British news agency Press Association with a $1 million grant to develop a computer program able to gather and write nearly 30,000 stories a month - a volume impossible to match manually.

Will robots ultimately steal a journalist’s job? My plain answer is no. He or she will share our job.

There are several benefits using a machine. For example, robots can act as an “assistant”, such as writing up press releases, data stories, or earnings results. They are however unable to conduct face-to-face interviews and ask follow-up questions, craft a colourful feature story and in-depth analysis, or shoot and edit a package for TV broadcast. They also do not have the ability to pick a news angle to begin with. Imagine the situation of a humanitarian crisis, for instance, where a correspondent interviews a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar. You can’t send a robot to talk to victims of genocide, but need to be on the ground and have an emotional connection.

By automating routine stories and tasks, journalists can free up time for more challenging jobs such as covering events and investigative reporting. It also paves the way for greater efficiency and cost-cutting measures for news organizations struggling to survive. Robot journalism is cheaper because large quantities of content can be produced at quicker speeds. Labor costs are lower thanks to less expenses on wages, holidays and paid leaves, and employment insurance. So, this type of disruption is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Apart from fears about even more job cuts in the media industry, there are obvious concerns about the credibility and quality of automated journalism and the use of algorithms. AI cannot replace human skills such as creativity, humour, or critical thinking in the newsroom, which are all crucial aspects for the media professional.

The calculator tool "Will Robots Take My Job?" developed by Oxford University and Deloitte reveals that reporters and correspondents stand an 11 percent risk of being replaced by a robot within the next two decades. This compares to 94 percent among couriers and messengers, and 25 percent among sales representatives for instance.

The origins of journalism date back to ancient times, when scribes wrote down and recorded events that happened around them. In 1556, the government of Venice first published the monthly “Notizie Scritte” (“Written Notes”), which cost one gazetta or one Venetian coin at that time. Today’s multi-billion dollar media industry may be in crisis, but it will never die. More than ever before, it is calling for a wider context, exclusive sources, and profound analysis. Above all, a smart human brain.

As with U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks against “fake news”, the good thing is that robo-reporters are sparking a fresh debate about the future of our profession, and this is a good thing. Skilled journalists will always have a job.

You may agree: A robot wouldn’t win a Pulitzer Prize.

Will robots ultimately steal a journalist’s job? My plain answer is no. He or she will share our job.

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