49th St. Gallen Symposium "Capital for Purpose": 8–10 May 2019


The added value of the human brain: how can journalists compete with robots?

"It really scares me to think that robots will take over newsrooms, but I don't see it happening,'' says Urs Gredig, head of CNN Money in Switzerland. "The good thing about journalism is that it is not for machines, it is for humans and for brains. Readers need to make sense of the news, find reasons behind them and attach certain knowledge and life experiences to them. Robots are not going to do this job,'' he adds.

In Gredig’s opinion, Swiss newspaper readers are a good example of what people actually look for in journalism. Switzerland’s most successful newspapers are regional, very “human” and old-fashioned. “People are lost in the wave of information and news,” he says. “They want to feel that their voices are heard and well presented in the media.”

"The more the whole economy, landscape and society are globalized, the more  media audiences get hungry for the small local media outlets that give them the stories that directly affect their lives. Surprisingly, it is not always the big stuff that is more important for the people, it is the stories that can relate to them the most," he says.

Instead of handing over the responsibility to robots, Gredig’s policy involves tailoring the news to the target audience, as well as training reporters to enhance their coverage and performance. He does not believe that we should rely on machines, even for tasks like data verification.

"I would not put so much trust in technology. You should not be trusting machines, you have to develop this critical mind and do it yourself, check and double check and verify data and always ask yourself who profits from this and who is behind that. This is not a responsibility that we can pass over to computers,'' he says.  

In addition, Gredig emphasises that the introduction of technology will make journalists want to take sides in a positive and transparent way: "Journalists have been taught not to be opinionated, to be as neutral and unbiased as they can,” Gredig says. “But it is important now to take stand and have an opinion and that is why I believe that opinion pieces and commentaries will be of more importance because you can actually feel someone behind it and get his reasoning and context. That is what readers are searching for they want to have a meaning and get a sense of it.”. 

It really scares me to think that robots will take over newsrooms, but I don't see it coming.

Digging deeper for a context

On the other side, Steve Forbes, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Business magazine, sees technology as a double-edged sword. Technology itself may raise various issues in terms of quality, but the phenomenon also demonstrates enormous opportunities regarding the sources of information.

"Although we still publish Forbes magazine, most of our revenue is online. In addition to our editors, we now have over 1000 contributors for our website and we produce a virtual online magazine every other day with 100,000 copies per year. This is a totally different world than the one I grew up in,'' Forbes says.  

However, this openness can also be a threat to quality. You do not have to be a professional journalist to write, as the web allows you to go out and reach an audience. Thus, the brand and the reputation of the website become even more important.

"The appetite for real journalism is very much there, but the way you produce it and disseminate it has changed. Nowadays, the desire for information is infinite and the desire for reliable information is a very precious commodity. It is not a matter of getting the information, it is a matter of conveying it in a suitable way for our readers,'' Forbes added.

In his opinion, what gives humans the upper hand is their ability to dig deeper to provide more insights and analysis. The instantaneous nature of high tech makes it possible for people to be eyewitnesses in the online world. Thus, what a journalist has to do is bring background information to fill out the news or find information that is not easily available. The job is not just to report on the news story, but also to provide context. 

''Journalism gives you the information that brings you beneath the surface of the things. Robots will get the basic news, while audiences want more context and background. Providing background and understanding becomes valuable when you are doing a story about economy or negotiations about a trade agreement. The journalist must have a body of knowledge in various areas to make the online readers want their personal perspective,'' Forbes says.  

When it comes to the issue of fake news, Forbes argues that only humans have the perceptual capacity to detect and respond to fake news, not AI. “Having more access to data means that you can verify facts much more easily. When I grew up, libraries had something called card catalogues, where you could search for the information contained in the library’s books. This was very time consuming.  Today, you get the sources everywhere, but you need a human to do this and give judgment on this,” Forbes says.

Journalism gives you the information that brings you beneath the surface of the things. Robots will get the basic news, while audiences want more context and background.
Urs Gredig and Till Daldrup at the 48th St. Gallen Symposium.

An optimistic future?

According to 48th St. Gallen Symposium Leader of Tomorrow Till Daldrup, a master’s student in Journalism Innovations at New York University, people should not be afraid of the integration of AI into the newsroom. Daldrup argues that AI will not completely eliminate the profession of journalism; but rather AI will help to augment the work of news writers.

In illustrating this point, Daldrup uses the example of the production of company reports by AI. When the initial data-gathering is done by computer programs, journalists can focus more on investigation. As a result, one can argue that AI is simply a tool for the work of human journalists.

Despite his optimism, he advises the journalists of the future to continuously make sure that their careers aren’t threatened by AI. “We don’t have to fear artificial intelligence, but we should be aware of the threats it poses,” Daldrup says. In order for a journalist to succeed in the age of AI, Daldrup encourages news writers to always make sure their reporting is original. This will help to differentiate between the capabilities of a human journalist and the capabilities of an AI robot.

We don’t have to fear artificial intelligence, but we should be aware of the threats it poses.