March 17, 2014

The Guardian

On Sunday, Leila Haddou and Will Franklin reported in The Guardian that the news site created their own robot reporter.

There is a logic at work here, though. The mundane task of trawling through wire copy to spot a newsworthy item could be seen as a waste of resources, especially if all that’s required is straight reportage of facts and figures. Surely we should just let computers do the work, while humans get on with more investigative and analytical pieces?

GUARBOT 1.0 went down like this.

We thought quinoa would be a suitable topic, and the program was tasked with trawling through a Guardian database for relevant terms from articles on the same subject. Then it was a matter of feeding a set of rules into the program to build a structure for the article. Here’s what we got back:

The crime-ridden family of quinoa has taken US by storm this month. According to Peru, New York has confirmed that quinoa is more story than anything else they’ve ever seen. Quotes from top Yotam Ottolenghi eaters suggest that “crop” is currently clear top, possibly more than ground black pepper. Experts say both Salt and University need to traditionally grow to strengthen a common solution. Finally, it is worth slightly rattling that this article was peeled until it made sense.

Haddou and Franklin also linked to a study published in February where “Swedish academic Christer Clerwall found that readers couldn’t tell much difference between computer-generated and human-written sports articles, with the robot version said to score highly on description.”

In August of last year, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon wrote about The Washington Post’s consideration of robot sports reporters. In May of last year, Craig Silverman wrote about five ways reporter bots might be good for journalism, including real-time fact-checking.

By letting robots do the initial fact finding work for us, we can apply human expertise to a secondary layer of validation and checking, or to add context and narrative. This frees up considerable resources for humans to help make sense of the truth and lies. They do the grunt work, we provide the context, meaning and narrative. Seems like a fair deal to me.

O Monday, Franklin wrote more for The Guardian about his GUARBOT. The whole idea isn’t really new, he wrote, and after this first trial, no one needs to be worried about losing their journalism jobs (to robots.)

Maybe we really do still need journalists, maybe articles really don’t write themselves… but realistically, it seems difficult to draw any conclusions from a badly researched, hastily coded and all round incomplete investigation. It was fun though.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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