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A sober look at automated journalism
With news organistions experimenting with newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence, is it a dawn of a new era in journalism? May be. But machines can never replace journalists
The media industry has been at the forefront of technological evolution. In the last decade or so, the rate at which the it has transformed itself has been spectacular. After satellite communications, the Internet and social media, now comes Artificial Intelligence knocking on its doors. The media industry is, perhaps, the early adapters of AI technology. This intelligence technology is soon becoming its operational backbone.
Many industry players recognise it as a boon in the newsroom and a tool to accelerate workflow and increase productivity. Tools are helping large news networks to streamline workflows, analyse data quickly, automate tasks, suggest story ideas and even compose few sentences. All this at a scale, speed, customisation and personalisation never seen before. New terminology like ‘automation editor’, a computational journalist is soon becoming a part of the lexicon.
So, is this a dawn of a new era in journalism? Will Artificial Intelligence, like in many other industries, jeopardise jobs in the media world? What are the challenges? Can Artificial Intelligence ever replace a human journalist?
Already we are witnessing augmented reality, virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence playing out in a substantial way in television newsrooms. The extensive use of mobiles for visual storytelling is a known fact. Drones have replaced clunky cameras with ease and are bringing striking visuals, especially in war-torn areas. Technology is creating an immersive experience and beautiful infographics for the viewers. A substantial part of the technical work is already getting automated.
According to industry observers, the future looks “cybernetic”. There will be a synergistic collaboration between Artificial Intelligence tools and journalists. One view is that the tools will actually help the journalist find more time to dig deep into the story angle and pursue it. Financial news organisations are utilising such technology to add perspective, crunch piles of data and data visualisation. Otherwise, it would have involved an enormous number of hours for a journalist to toil and make sense of it. Sports news is also increasingly becoming data-heavy with customisation and rich content already evident.
Many consider these Artificial Intelligence-augmented tools of data-driven journalism as a facilitator and not a replacement for actual journalists. Critics argue that algorithms can’t see, feel or know as an actual human reporter can.
Therefore, an excessive dependence on Artificial Intelligence technology would be risky and will also be a big mistake.
The question is: Will the future newsroom be run on intelligent machines or will it consist of human reporters and Artificial Intelligence working together? What emerges clearly is that newsrooms and journalism are grappling with an ever-expanding and fast-paced environment and are overloaded with information. To that extent, to support, journalist keep up with increased demands of speed and efficiency; more and more organisation are set to invest in these kinds of technology tools in the near future.
Artificial Intelligence, thankfully, can’t take over some jobs easily. Jobs that need creativity, social intelligence, understanding of cultural nuances, high communications skills, and un-templated jobs are few such instances.
Journalism, barring few exceptions, deals with a more complex intersection of events and actors, which a journalist would have to react, think and make sense of situations that are often dynamic and not pre-programmed.
There may be some jobs that may disappear, like routine news beats, including local stories and crime reports. However, to investigate, report in-depth, analyse, profile people and stories with meaningful context and human emotions, may all seem bit other-worldly to spout for a robot.
Amidst the Artificial Intelligence onslaught, we cannot overlook few content and institutional challenges. First, Artificial Intelligence works best when large amounts of data is available. Therefore, millions of data points are essential to deduce patterns and meaning. To the contrary, in a similar situation, human beings, with limited data, can easily come up with a logical and optimal response. Artificial Intelligence, apart from the enormous craving for data, also finds it unappetising and challenging to understand unorganised data. Many times, a human being is more adept at harnessing the unstructured data than an Artificial Intelligence. It is also a fact that data available today is mostly scattered and unstructured.
Probably, the time has come where new journalistic standards will have to be introduced. The bylines for a story, written by a machine or a human being, will have to be clearly mentioned for the information of the reader. Functions such as verifying authenticity, facts and sources need to be accurate or else, Artificial Intelligence will only process spurious input, resulting in false output. This is a complete lack of self-awareness. You can question a reporter on the angle or for the biases that may have crept in but what would you do with Artificial Intelligence tools on the output-generated results?
Many outlets are using Artificial Intelligence-powered tools to assign a relative value of content and put in front of the users. It is, therefore, imperative to ensure that misleading content and disinformation doesn’t get in the front competing for readers attention. The Facebook debacle is all about commercial incentives and engagement metrics overriding the actual accuracy of the content. As more media players are drawn towards Artificial Intelligence, it is important not to disregard these concerns.
Lastly, in a creative economy, passion and motivation are the bedrocks. The recently announced Pulitzer prize, the most coveted awards in journalism, demonstrate these values. Ground-breaking reportage and fearless investigative journalism resulted in the winners’ trailblasing success. The stories shook our collective conscience; brought a seismic change in the society; dismantled power structures; and exposed few revered powerful personalities, reducing them into a mound of ash. These endeavours are part of the old school journalism practiced with rigour, conviction, persistence and ‘human’ excellence. Question arises: Is Artificial Intelligence-driven journalism ever capable of producing a Pulitzer worthy piece on its own?
(The writer is a communications and management professional with cross-sectoral experience)
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